The burning Texas sun set over the distant hills in spectacular bursts of amethyst, cardinal red, and tangerine, while a warm breeze moved over my skin like a caress. It was late summer nights like these idyllic evenings, when laughter and the smell of cooking food filled the air, that made me regret ever leaving the raw beauty of the Texas Hill Country. I took a long pull from my cold beer and gazed across the yard to where my amazing man, Smoke, stood talking with my good friend Indigo’s parents, Ron and Bettie. Indigo’s Asian father looked like a hippie time had forgotten in his tie-dye shirt and long, silver-streaked hair. Her mother didn’t rock the tie-dye, but she did personify the earth mother look with her rounded body and flowing dresses. Smoke seemed all the more dark and dangerous standing with them, like some kind of post-apocalypse War Barron…an apex predator. Except, right now, he looked like an amused predator conversing with two earnest chipmunks.
Ron and Bettie were actually pretty sane for preppers. They were both highly educated and world-wise, but they’d talk your ear off about ‘the man’ if you gave them half a chance. I wondered if Smoke was perplexed or amused by them. I know Indigo thought they were just batshit crazy. They drove her nuts with their ever evolving list of people they swore were trying to bring down the government. Funny thing was, the more you listened to them the more you started to believe that their weird conspiracy theories might have a ring of truth to them.
Memories of nights spent at Indigo’s luxurious compound flitted through my mind, like sheets of paper caught in a windstorm, as the years peeled back. Ron and Bettie were more than a little odd, but they treated me like one of their own and were two of the few people I trusted on sight. They were close with my parents and would often come over to play cards on our big, screened-in back porch and laugh about the world going to hell. When I needed someone to talk to, they were always there. A bolt of melancholy tightened my chest as I realized how much I missed them…though right now I was far more interested in my man than my friend’s parents.
Poor Smoke, he actually looked like he was really thinking about what they were saying and had a slightly bemused smile curving his lips. Considering Ron and Bettie were conspiracy theorists he was probably getting an earful about the Vagrants, an evil political entity Ron and Bettie believed was slowly taking over the world. That was why they’d decided to stop watching cable TV. They swore the Vagrants had implanted mind control devices in the cable boxes. We watched a lot of DVDs at their house.
Indigo had a touch of their paranoia, but at twenty-one, she was one of the best private investigators in the country, so maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
I had to laugh at myself as I watched my big, badass, biker boyfriend talking with them in their faded, flower child glory. I swear they were roughly half his massive size, and his commanding presence made them seem even smaller. My gaze trailed from his broad shoulders, to his thick thighs and tight ass before returning to his face.
From the top of his head of curly black hair to his sexy feet—no, seriously, the man has gorgeous feet—he was one hundred percent mine. The good and the bad. Sometimes I saw a hint of true darkness in him, the dispassionate gaze of a killer, and it scared me, yet aroused me at the same time. If Smoke was the king of the jungle, I was his queen, and I had a touch of his darkness myself. We were an odd couple, to be sure, but beneath our skin, our hearts beat to the same savage rhythm.
Even though my sex was still sore from the hard fuck he’d given me last night, I craved him to the point where I planned on throwing myself on him and tearing off his clothes the first second we were alone. When he’d taken my virginity he woke a hunger in me that bordered on ravenous. I wanted to devour him, to lock us away in my bedroom and make him give me pleasure until I passed out. I knew how good those perfect, full lips of his felt wrapped around my nipples and how his big hands could hold my body still while he bit me with little stinging nips that set my body ablaze.
He was a big, solid man all over, including his magnificent cock with the piercing beneath the base that rested against his balls. A shiver raced down my spine and settled in my belly as I imagined how that wonderful bit of metal would hit my clit just right, while he pounded into me from behind. Another wave of heat sensitized my pussy and I shifted, somehow drawing his attention to me where I stood leaning against a tree and watching the sun set.
When his dark gaze met mine, I swore the world hushed for a moment. Nothing existed except my pounding heart and his handsome face. The setting sun hit his cheekbones and his bold Aztec nose just right, turning him into the living statue of a warrior. Without even trying, he enchanted me, and my knees weakened to the point where I had to brace myself against the tree. I was spellbound by his dark gaze, completely ensnared by his raw, masculine beauty.
That was the only way I could describe my feelings for him. He wove some type of magical enchantment over me that held me in ethereal bondage, draining my will and replacing it with his. I gladly surrendered to him, and my breath caught at the flare of passion between us as he casually rubbed his lips while pretending to listen to Bettie yammer on about the world ending. His gaze moved over me, and I took a quick pull of my beer, trying to cool the fire he’d started in me.
I was wearing a pair of faded jeans and a black tank top with a pair of my beat up old boots, but he stared at me like I was nude and had been rubbed down with oil. His gaze cranked my overwhelming arousal even higher. I didn’t like getting turned on with my parents around—it was weird—but at the same time, I craved the way the heat built between us until I was melting with it. If he slipped his long, rough fingers between my legs right now he’d find me slick with desire.
I had to tighten my grip on my beer bottle, suddenly certain that it would slip from my useless grip as my heart raced when he made his way across the yard to me. Yelling children darted past him while a few of my parents’ friends tried to get his attention, but he avoided the kids and ignored the adults. His attention was focused totally on me, and I couldn’t help my goofy smile as he came closer. Elation filled me and I took one step away from my tree, then another, eager to bask in his presence like a cat in a patch of sunlight on a cold winter day.
When Smoke’s intense gaze focused on me like this, I knew I was the center of his universe. He looked at me in a way no one ever had, like I was more important than air and the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. I would never, ever get tired of the way Smoke watched me. Putting a little swing in my hips, I stepped beneath the green leaves of the old tree until the toes of my battered cowboy boots were touching his black motorcycle boots. The scents of summer filled the air around us, the sun-baked earth mixed with the hickory smoke from the fire, and the sharp, sweet spice of barbecue.
The wind shifted a bit so that I became enveloped in his scent, and I stifled a groan. He smelled really, really good, a hint of sweat mixed with sun-warmed skin and his soap. He’d actually brought a bar of his personal soap with him and insisted on washing me with it when we shared a shower this morning. He seemed to get off on me smelling like his masculine scented soap. Not that I was complaining. Being bathed by Smoke was a decadent experience and one of the best ways in the world to greet the day.
I looked up and brushed a strand of hair from my face while we stared at each other like love-besotted fools. Tonight, I actually wore my high maintenance hair down and loose at Smoke’s request. I was constantly moving it off my face, which was annoying, but totally worth every bit of irritation when Smoke ran his fingers through the long strands with a look of pure satisfaction. He cupped my cheek, leaned down and rubbed his nose along mine, then brushed a soft kiss over my lips. Even that modest touch made my skin tingle, and I sighed against his mouth, pressing my body against his even as I kept my hands at my side. If I touched him, I’d either grab his magnificent ass or run my fingers through his dark, silken curls while hauling his mouth to mine in a rather wanton display that would be totally inappropriate in front of my neighbors.
His tongue brushed my lips and I groaned softly, stealing a taste of him before he lifted his head and grinned down at me, still stroking my cheek in a hypnotizing rhythm. I knew I was the only person who ever got to see the soft, tender side of Smoke, and I relished his open affection for me. In the world of the Iron Horse MC, where he was the Master at Arms for the founding chapter, Smoke was feared, and with good reason. When we first met, I’d witnessed him losing his temper, and the pure rage he put off scared me. Even back then, he’d been oddly attuned to my every need and had immediately calmed himself when he saw that his anger scared me.
“Hey, beautiful baby,” Smoke said with a rough purr in his voice. “You tryin’ to get your daddy to shoot me?”
I laughed, very aware of my father glaring at Smoke from where he sat at a picnic table near the fire pit. A hint of unease moved through me. My dad could very well be considering how to end the life of my boyfriend, or as Smoke liked me to call him, my man. Even my dad’s disapproval couldn’t quell the need coiling inside of me, and I slipped my hand into Smoke’s and gave a soft squeeze. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Mimi sat down on my dad’s lap then threaded her fingers through his thick hair. He glared at her for a second before his lips curved into a reluctant smile, and his eyes filled with warmth. They were soulmates. I was happy for them and glad I’d been blessed with parents who showed me what true love meant.
“No, I don’t want my dad to shoot you. He might hit something important. Something I really like.” I bumped my hips to his, the press of his big erection against my body sending a shiver of electric desire down my spine and straight to my clit. Fuck. Knowledge was a dangerous thing. I have this problem with people touching me, a sensory issue combined with a fear of strangers. Before Smoke, I’d never met a man who could touch me like he could. My body belonged to him from the very start, and he took very, very good care of it.
My sex tingled with arousal, and I rubbed against him again seeking the relief only he could give me, and the escape from my worries and fear that I could find only in his arms.
His deep chuckle vibrated against my breasts. “What naughty things are you thinking about? Is it about my tongue in your pussy, or my cock?”
I frowned up at him, trying to ignore the way my lady bits were now throbbing. Damn he had an erotic voice, all deep and growly. Male, primal, hot. “How do you know I’m thinking about sex?”
“Because you do these long, slow bites on your lower lip when you’re getting turned on. Plus, your eyes get all hot and heavy, but brighter, a pure blue like a winter sky in the desert. Your beauty drives me insane. All I want to do is look at you, touch you, love you, because just being around you brings me joy. I could fuck you for days at a time, satisfy you until you don’t know your own name, but now is not the time or place, so stop being so fuckin’ sexy. You’re killin’ me.”
My clit throbbed with each beat of my heart and I wished we could sneak off, but that would be impossible right now. I sighed and wrapped my arms around his waist, resting my cheek against his chest, peace filling me. “It’ll be nice to go home when this is over. Where it can just be you and me together.”
He made a happy sound and pulled me tight against him, his arms solid as tree trunks wrapping around me and holding me close. “I can’t wait to get you home either.”
“Um...Swan?” A woman’s husky, low-pitched, familiar voice came from somewhere behind me.
Smoke tensed, but I squirmed my way out of his arms, already running before I’d even laid eyes on my best friend, Lyric, who stood not too far away. A hot blush covered her face as she looked down at her hands where they gripped her long, dowdy blue skirt so hard her knuckles were white. Memories of seeing her standing with that hesitant, scared posture flashed through me making my heart ache. My friend only looked like this after she’d been hurt, and considering her tender heart and trusting nature, that happened often. Lyric gave me a startled look when I came barreling at her, but it soon dissolved into laughter when we hugged and jumped up and down, talking over each other at the same time like a couple of pre-teen girls hyped up on Pixy Stixs.
I finally calmed down, took a deep breath and hugged her tight. She never wore any perfume, but she smelled like fresh air and the outdoors. Lyric had loved to play with makeup and perfume when she was at my house, but it was strictly forbidden at her religious compound. Something about vanity and temptation trying to make sinners out of men. Idiots.
She was about five-two with a curvy body and breasts bigger than mine. Her thick, waist-length, light brown hair was pulled back into the stupid braid her religious elders insisted all women wear. The fit of her dress made her body look lumpy, which was a shame, because beneath that sack-like piece of crap, she had a lovely hourglass shape. When we were young teenagers, she would come over and we’d play dress-up with Mimi’s makeup and party dresses. I’d spend hours playing with Lyric’s hair, brushing it until it shone in thick waves while we talked about our dreams of the future. Mimi had taught us both how to look beautiful, yet classy, and I know Lyric loved feeling pretty. But every time Lyric left to go home, she had to remove the makeup, wash off the perfume, and put on her shapeless clothing or risk punishment for dressing like a ‘whore’ and enticing god-fearing men.
The only reason Lyric’s parents let her come over in the first place was because they did business with my dad. Hell, everyone in the compound dealt with my dad in one way or another. If you needed something, he could get it, and if he couldn’t, he knew someone who could.
Beyond that, my dad owned the water rights for the entire collection of compounds, something more valuable than gold and not a luxury anyone wanted to lose. That meant if Lyric’s compound wanted water, she got to come over for a pajama party. Thank God her parents allowed her to visit, because I don’t know what I would have done without Lyric’s caring presence in my life. She was one of the few people who’d been able to touch me without causing me pain, and in many ways, I thought of her as my sister.
With a faint tremble in her voice Lyric whispered, “I missed you.”
Tears burned my eyes as guilt pierced me, and I hugged her hard enough that she wheezed. “I missed you too.”
Smoke’s voice, warm and rough, came from behind me. “You must be Lyric. Swan speaks very highly of you.”
Lyric immediately clammed up, her lips pressing together as she turned her eyes to the ground and clasped her hands behind her back. It was ingrained in her, practically since birth, to be subservient to men so that she had a problem dealing with any male over the age of sixteen. I gently lifted her chin until her enormous, hazel eyes met mine. Lyric had the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen, complex and doe-like in their innocence. From a distance, her eyes looked brown, but when you got close, they were actually a beautiful, light golden-brown with a starburst of hazel-green, and flecked with orange that surrounded the iris.
It was the trust in her eyes that made me decide to be as direct with her as I could. We didn’t lie to each other, ever, and I wasn’t going to start now. “Lyric, this is my man, Smoke. I know he looks scary as shit, but he’s a part of my life now, and I love him. I would really like it if you could be friends. I know he’s huge, but I swear he’d rather cut off his own hand than harm you.
She trembled hard, but when I gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, she darted her gaze up at Smoke and whispered a rapid spill of words. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Smoke.”
“You can just call me Smoke, sweetheart.” His voice was equally soothing as he said, “It’s nice to meet someone that Swan cares about so much.”
Lyric gave him a shy smile before returning her gaze to the ground. “I care about her, too. She’s like my sister.”
“Then that means we’re family now, and I always take care of my family.” He dazzled us both with his best smile, and Lyric sucked in a quick breath.
“Um...okay.” She gave me a rather desperate, dazed look. I could sympathize with her feeling like that. “He’s your boyfriend?”
She gave a slightly shaky laugh and whispered, “Wow.”
“It’s so good to see you,” I kissed her on the cheek then gave her another hug. A fragile innocence and sweetness seemed to radiate from Lyric, and as usual, the urge to take care of her rose in me. “Come on, let’s get some food in you.”
She paled, her sprinkling of freckles standing out on the bridge of her nose and upper cheeks. “Can we stay here? I had to agree to bring a chaperone with me to the party, and I ditched him.”
I had to grit my teeth and take a deep breath as my protective instincts roared to life. “Why do you look scared when you say that?”
Clasping her hands together hard enough to make her skin blotch, she shook her head. “They have rules now, like any woman must be accompanied by a man of high standing in the church if she wishes to leave the homestead. Especially an unmarried woman.”
“What?” I saw Smoke tense out of the corner of my eye and tried to think up a way to diffuse the situation, but I was having a hard enough time keeping my shit under control. “They wouldn’t let you leave by yourself if you wanted to?”
“No,” Lyric said in a flat voice and tensed. “Things are different with our new leader.”
I blinked at her in surprise. “You’re dad’s not leading your church anymore?”
Lyric’s lower lip trembled. “He died four months ago.”
Right away, I felt like the worst friend ever, and my voice was thick with tears as I said, “Honey, I had no idea. Why didn’t you have Dad and Mimi tell me? I would have come home in an instant.”
“I asked them to keep it from you because I didn’t want you to meet the new leader.” Lyric turned her head and tried to wipe away her tears. “I don’t want you around him. He’s not a nice man. Your fresh mouth would get me in trouble. New rule: If we have a guest and they commit a transgression, then the person who invited them has to pay for it by doing penance. It’s cut down on the number of outsiders coming to the Church, big time, and isolated the members from their extended families. A few of the more moderate families have already left, but the hardcore believers are gaining power…and new members. The pastor we have right now preaches fear and hate—that God is a vengeful deity bent upon bringing suffering to those who sin against Him. I’ve tried to debate it with the pastor, to help him see that God is love, not hate, but he seems like he doesn’t even care what the Bible says. He’s teaching the people lies, and they seem to be oblivious to just how manipulative he is.”
I ran a soothing hand down her braid, trying to calm her before she became too upset to talk. “Who is he?”
“Pastor James Jebidiah Middleton,” she replied with a note of disgust in her voice.
“How did he become the pastor?”
She sighed. “It’s a long story.”
“What about your Mom? What’s she doing? Is she finally staying home or is she still on her mission kick?” Lyric’s mother and father were home maybe two months out of the year, spending the rest doing missionary work around the world. I never understood how they could leave their daughter behind, but they often looked at Lyric more like an inconvenience than their child. If it wasn’t for the fact that Lyric’s strict but loving grandparents mostly raised her, I think Mimi and my dad would have had Lyric living with us a long time ago.
A light breeze blew a strand of Lyric’s hair across her face. “My mother is dating Pastor Middleton.”
I gaped at her. “What?”
“Yeah. He started courting her soon after he arrived, claiming God had sent him a vision about my mom. She spends a lot time now at the pastor’s mansion. They’re getting married really soon.”
“What? He’s marrying Evelyn? God sent him a vision about Evelyn, and they’re getting married? That’s so messed up on so many levels.” I shuddered. “I thought your Mom despised sex. The thought of…urk.”
“Yeah.” Lyric’s lips twisted in disgust. “Pastor Middleton is slick. He’s handsome for an older guy, charismatic, and can be very, very charming, but he can also be scary. Things are different now, Swan. I’m trying to get my grandmother to leave with me, but her dementia is pretty bad. Some days she doesn’t even recognize me. I don’t know if moving her from her home would hurt her.”
“Bring your grandma with you to my dad’s house. You know we’ll help you any way we can.”
“I don’t want to be a burden on your parents.” I started to protest, but Lyric held up her hand and I noticed the calluses on her palms that hadn’t been there before. “Besides, Pastor Middleton has spies all over the place, and there is no way I could get my grandma out with them watching me. She’s totally bedridden now and needs constant care. I couldn’t take her with me and subject her to the stress of trying to run away. I know it would kill her. I also know if I call the police, the whole thing would become a media circus, and we’d never have a chance at a normal life. That’s all I want, the old fashioned American dream. A loving husband, kids, and a home that I could make my own, a place that would be a haven from the world where I could safely love my family with all my heart.”
“What the fuck kind of hellhole do you live in?” Smoke’s voice was thick and loaded with tension.
He was obviously angry and trying to contain it. I could understand that because I was in a similar situation, but I knew better than to get angry around Lyric. The fire in Smoke’s eyes grew fiercer, and I sucked in a quick breath. He looked like a man getting ready to do something drastic. Worried about Smoke getting wrapped up in a fight with the cult—okay, fine, I said it, cult—I reached out and grasped his hand. The instant our fingertips met, he visibly calmed himself.
“I know you think I’m stupid for staying, but my home wasn’t always like this.” Lyric darted a glance at Smoke that held a bit of anger mixed with shame. “When I was little and my grandparents headed the church, it was a good place, a happy place. My parents were missionaries, and they’d leave me with my grandparents for most of the year. I loved staying with them rather than with my own distant mother and father. Everyone helped each other out, and the sermons were about God’s love and compassion. We were taught to forgive each other and care for each other like family. It was a wonderful place to grow up, if a bit strict. My grandmother is everything to me. She’s the one who taught me about love and the grace of God. I can’t abandon her.”
She closed her eyes, and without a second thought, I pulled her into a hug, holding her tight as the tension and anguish poured out of her. Lyric very rarely talked about the negative parts of her life, and I wanted to do everything I could to give her the courage to speak up. Thanks to Smoke’s unconditional love, I knew how healing and cathartic it could be to share the burdens from the past.
Lyric took a deep breath and rested her head on my shoulder. “Things at my church started to go wrong. First the measles then a bad case of whooping cough swept through our compound. Over a dozen children died, and it was like the joy had gone out of people’s hearts. Everyone felt like each child in the congregation was their own, so every family suffered profound grief. Many lost their faith. They were...they are good people, but that anguish has smothered their souls. And now…now I’m afraid it’s made them vulnerable to a man who cares more about wealth and control than about God. We have a curfew now. There are whispers about Pastor Middleton receiving messages from God about who the single women on the compound are meant to marry. Funny how all the attractive women get paired up with his most ardent followers.”
My gut tightened, and I exchanged a heavy look with Smoke. “Has he tried to marry you off to anyone yet?”
“No.” She made a sour face. “But his son has sure expressed his interest. That’s who my chaperone is tonight, Clint.”
“He’s here with you?” I quickly looked around, ready to go pound some hypocritical ass for scaring my friend. With Smoke at my back I was pretty sure we’d make enough of an impression to buy Lyric some safety. “Where?”
“I ditched him with Shelly, Adam and Karen. They promised to keep him busy so I could talk with you.”
Smoke growled behind me and Lyric shivered. “Honey, tell me where he is, and I’ll make sure he never bothers you again.”
She shook her head quickly. “No, please. I can handle him. No violence.”
Protective feelings of love and worry swamped me. Lyric was a terrible fighter. In spite of my dad’s attempts to train her, she was crippled by her fear of hurting someone. While I loved her compassionate nature, I also knew that it made her prey, a plump little baby kitten that was a tempting target to the predators of the world.
“What about your Mom?” I was almost going to argue that some kind of maternal instinct would motivate her mother on some level, but then I thought about my own birth mother and sighed.
“She could care less.” Lyric took a step back and looked me in the eye. “My mother gets jealous of anyone who takes Pastor Middleton’s attention away from her, including me. I avoid him and her as much as possible outside of church. I spend a lot of time in the fields and orchard working, but at least I have peace out there. Pastor Middleton’s men don’t like physical labor so they leave me alone. Plus, I’m staying with my grandmother and caring for her while my mother lives in the new mansion.”
“New mansion? What fucking mansion?”
“You don’t even want to know. They call it a meeting hall because the basement is the new gathering place for the congregation, but the top three floors of this building house Pastor Middelton and a few of his cronies, including his son.”
“Lyric, honey,” I gently held her face between my hands and met her confused and hurting gaze. “Please consider leaving.”
“I want to, but I can’t. Not while grandma is alive. I can’t leave her with them, Swan. I just know they’ll neglect her and won’t care for her like I do. I can’t bear the thought of her being mistreated.”
“Fuck. Look, I know your grandmother wouldn’t want you living like this.”
“I can help you leave right now,” Smoke replied in a thoughtful voice. “Got some people that owe me favors and we’ll help you get a new identity, a new life. Could probably get your grandma out as well.”
“What?” Lyric gaped at him, then shook her head and looked down at the ground. “No...no, it’s too dangerous. You don’t understand, she’s one hundred and two years old, and her body is as fragile as a hollow egg. I can’t move her, and I won’t leave her. Please don’t ask me again.”
I could see that Smoke wanted to argue with Lyric, but she’d made up her mind, and trying to get her to change it would be like trying to tell the sun not to rise. When I placed my hand on Smoke’s arm, out of the corner of my eye, I could see Lyric watching us carefully. Smoke looked over at me, and the frustration on his face was easy to read. For all that Smoke was a dangerous, deadly man, he also had a soft place in his heart for women in danger. Seemed to be a running theme in the Iron Horse MC. Smoke sighed as I rubbed his arm, then he gave me a little nod before forcing his mouth to relax out of its angry line.
“Your choice.” Smoke turned back to Lyric. “Anytime, and I do mean anytime you want to leave or need help, have Swan’s parents contact me. Once you get out, you can be and do whatever you want. We’ll help you with school, getting a job, a new identity, and we’ll find you a safe place to live. I’ll leave my information with Mike. Swan loves you so that means you’re family, and we take care of our family.”
His words struck me on a profound level, and I lost a little more of my heart to him as I realized he meant it. He’d take care of Lyric, help her any way he could, because he loved me. I was sure he was also making the offer because he was a decent guy beneath all the violence, but mainly he was doing it for me. His love for me made my heart skip a beat. Lyric’s soft sigh pulled my attention away from Smoke.
Tears shone in Lyric’s eyes, and she nodded at my man with a look of determination tightening her soft features. “Thank you.”
I wrapped her in a hard hug, and she snuggled into me. Lyric was a very physically affectionate person who had been born into a family that didn’t encourage outward displays of love, leaving my friend touch-starved to the point that when she spent the night at my house when we were kids, we’d end up snuggled together in bed. She gave the best hugs—totally innocent, and full of comfort, making her the perfect person to cuddle.. The soothing warmth of my love for my friend filled me, and when she pulled away with tears spilling down her cheeks, I used the back of my hand to wipe away a few of my own.
Lyric looked behind me, then tensed and ducked closer to Smoke. “Darn it, he’s looking for me.”
I went to turn, but Lyric’s hand on my wrist stopped me. “I’m sorry, I thought I had more time. Before I go I have a message for you from Sarah.”