Tucker Gifford looked up from his scruffy sneakers and gave me a self-conscious smile. “Hey, Miss Clark.”
Despite the sad sight in front of me, my heart melted. The kid was just so damn cute. And sad.
At eight, he was too young to do much of anything all by himself, but I’d seen him alone plenty of times around our apartment complex—always with that tough but oh so vulnerable expression. He defined the term latchkey kid.
For the second time in a week, I’d come home to find him sitting on the front step of the complex. Only this time he had a sack of groceries beside him. Not quite sure what to make of that, I smiled in return. “Hey, Tucker. You lose your key again?”
He hitched a shoulder in reply. Crap, that couldn’t be a good sign. Usually he talked a mile a minute.
It’d been a long day. My summer job at the bookstore had given me a killer headache. All I wanted was a few Tylenol and some mindless TV. But clearly Tucker was hurting, and I couldn’t just leave him. I stopped next to him and sat down on the step, uncaring of my white sundress.
Okay, I cared a little.
Peering into the grocery bag, I spotted potato chips, cookies, soda and beef jerky. Much more than a kid would buy for an afternoon snack. My heart sank at the implication. Had his mom left him for the night?
“Have you called your mom?”
Tucker looked away, avoiding my probing eyes. “My cell phone’s dead.”
“You can borrow mine.” I reached into my purse.
“I don’t remember her number. She changed it last week.”
Of course she did. His mother, Rhonda, had put me on her shit list very soon after they moved in over a month ago. The first time we’d met, I smiled at her, and she’d given me a snide “What the hell are you looking at?” accompanied by a hostile glare. Lovely woman. I knew and got along with the majority of the people in our complex, but Mrs. Gifford had done little to ingratiate herself with her new neighbors. Me especially.
I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Gifford. Although if he was anything like his wife, he had to be a piece of work, too.
“So what’s on tap for tonight?” I gave Tucker a smile that I just wasn’t feeling. “Gonna play some video games with Jonas?”
“Nope.” Tucker ducked his head and scraped intently at the dirt under his fingernails. “He went on vacation with his mom and dad.”
Which didn’t really explain why Tucker was sitting out front of the apartments. Was he waiting for his mom? Or someone else? I’d only ever seen him hanging out with our neighbor Jonas, or coming or going all by himself or with his mother. I wanted to ask about his dad but wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. Was the man even in Tucker’s life? Could I be making a bad situation worse by asking about him? Probably.
The ache behind my eyes pounded harder. Really all I wanted was to collapse on my sofa and watch some Real Housewives while I drowned myself in red wine and pizza, but clearly that wasn’t gonna happen tonight. I gave Tucker a weary smile—it was all I was capable of right that second. “How about you come in and help me eat the pizza that’s on its way?”
I mentally crossed my fingers. Or would be on its way once I made the phone call.
Tucker didn’t say anything. But he hefted his grocery bag and followed me into the building and up the flight of stairs to our floor. His apartment was next door to mine and I couldn’t help but look in its direction as I unlocked my deadbolt. The whole floor was unusually quiet, another telltale sign that his mother wasn’t home. Since they moved in, Rhonda usually had her apartment bumping with bass that shook my walls. Again, she was an awesome neighbor. Ugh.
I gave him another weak smile over my shoulder before pushing open the door and ushering him inside.
An hour later, with most of a large pizza demolished and a few cans of cola that I’d found at the back of my fridge consumed, I felt a little braver. Mostly because Tucker had relaxed enough to crack a few jokes and share a few unknowingly heartbreaking details about his life. Like the fact that he much preferred to spend time with his father.
“So what’s the plan for tonight? Do you know when your mom’s coming home? I could make up the couch for you, or . . .” I hesitated. Was I making the right call here? Given the way Tucker had talked about him, I knew he loved his dad. Hopefully the man was more worthy of the emotion than his mother.
Tucker reached for his next piece of pizza. “Or what?”
“Or we could call your dad. If your mom’s not coming home, wouldn’t you rather be with him? Especially since you’re locked out.”
“He’s not home.” Tucker grabbed his slice of pizza and shoved most of it into his mouth in one huge bite.
“We could call his cell, maybe?”
Tucker shook his head. “Don’t know his new number, either.”
What was it with his family? How could everyone need new phone numbers every other week? It was crazy. “Well, he’ll be home eventually, right? I could run you by his house later on tonight.”
Tucker’s whole face lit up with hope before he sagged with a frown. “It’s Wednesday. He’ll be at work ’til late.”
“He’s at work? What’s he do?”
“He’s a mechanic.”
“And he’s working tonight? All night on a Wednesday?” Yeah, that wasn’t weird. My mind raced at all the possibilities. Tucker had made his dad sound awesome, but now I wondered.
Until tonight there hadn’t been anything really happening with Tucker that I could report to DCFS, the authorities. He was a latchkey kid, but then again he wasn’t the only one in the apartment complex. It was obvious Rhonda had left him alone for the night—if not the entire weekend—and I had to do something.
“Tucker, I need to talk to your dad. Can we drop by his shop? Do you know the name? We can call first if you want.”
Again he hitched a shoulder in reply.
I struggled not to snap at him. I knew this couldn’t be easy for him, either. “Come on, Tuck, grab your stuff. I’ll run you over there.”
Because if I didn’t talk to his dad tonight, I was calling the authorities. Not that I was gonna tell him that. I didn’t want to spook him and lose his trust before I knew he was taken care of, even if it was with DCFS. I knew from my own experiences foster care could be pretty rough, and I didn’t want that for this sweet little guy. Hopefully his dad was the kind who gave a shit, although judging from his choice in women, I wasn’t too optimistic.
After a little cajoling, we were in my car. It was a piece-of-crap car, but with student loans still weighing me down, it would have to last me a little bit longer. I mentally cussed the master’s degree in Library Science that I just had to have to be competitive in the job market. It would only take me ten short years to finally be debt free. Until then I had to make sacrifices, like my crappy, unreliable car. I sank the key into the ignition and mentally said a prayer as I turned the key over. It only took two tries before the engine finally started. Thank God for tiny favors! With a triumphant grin, I turned to Tucker, who I made sit in the backseat. “So where are we going?”
His brow wrinkling at my inexplicable euphoria, Tucker just shook his head. “Downtown.”
Ten minutes later, my shoulders slumped more the further we drove into the downtown corridor. I wouldn’t walk through this neighborhood in the light of day, so I really didn’t feel comfortable driving down these streets at dusk. The time I spent at each stop sign decreased until I was practically rolling through the last one.
We finally reached what Tucker said was his dad’s mechanic shop. The sign over the closed roller bay doors read “Dirty Side Down Mechanics.” Of course the padlocked doors and lack of vehicles outside didn’t bode well for finding Mr. Gifford. Or his story of “working late.”
I coasted to a stop in front of the shop, then looked at Tucker in the rearview mirror. “So if he’s not at work, you sure you he’s not at home?”
“Not on Wednesdays.” Tucker stared mulishly out the windshield.
“Great.” I sighed, picturing us trolling the local bars for his father. Not in this lifetime. Definitely not with a child in tow, and judging from the location of his shop, I really wouldn’t fit in at his father’s no doubt dubious choice of drinking hole. Dammit, I was gonna have to call DCFS.
Memories of my own visits with burnt-out social workers and lackluster foster parents had my throat thickening with tears. I knew the system failed, and I really didn’t want to put Tucker through that, but what were my options? With a heavy heart, I reached for my purse.
“He’s probably at the clubhouse.”
I paused. “Clubhouse? What does that mean?” The innocuous word didn’t make sense with our surroundings. Plus I had a hard time imagining someone who worked here having a treehouse.
Tucker just shrugged. “It’s down the street.”
My car groaned as I put it back into gear, and we rolled down the street at a slow pace. The neighborhood, a mix of warehouses and battered, vacant prewar-era houses, was mostly empty. My stomach knotted up as I stopped in front of a fenced-off block a minute later.
An eight-foot fence topped with razor wire loomed overhead. And the sight on the other side of the fence wasn’t much more comforting. At least twenty motorcycles sat in the parking lot, while my car and the entire block bounced from the bumping bass emanating from the plain cinderblock building.
“Your dad is here?”
“Yeah, that’s his bike over there.” Tucker gestured toward the parking lot.
Suddenly “clubhouse” took on a more sinister meaning. Tucker’s dad was a biker. One of those kinda bikers.
I’d had some recent exposure to what bikers were like. My best friend, Jessica, was getting married to a biker in two months. They’d been together for over a year, and I still had a hard time believing it. We were middle-class good girls who toed the line. Neither Jess nor I had ever had a walk on the wild side. But then, last year, she broke all the rules.
Apparently Jess and Zag, her biker, had started out as a one-night stand, but one night became two and got complicated by a drug-dealing ex-club member who targeted Jessica after she saw him selling drugs in a parking lot. An accidental pregnancy, two bullet wounds, and a year later, my normal best friend was crazy in love with a biker and getting married. Even after almost a year, it still felt surreal.
I kinda hoped this was Zag’s club. At least then there’d be a somewhat familiar face.
I eyed the stocky guy guarding the compound gates. It wasn’t so much the clothes that intimidated—I’d seen plenty of guys in jeans and leather jackets. But even the poor lighting couldn’t hide the tattoos on his neck or the annoyed body language when he crossed his arms and sent a glare our way. I really didn’t want to have a conversation with him.
I bit my lip and turned to Tucker. “Do you know a Zag by any chance?”
“He’s my dad’s best friend. How do you know Zag?” Tucker’s eyes widened.
“Small world. He’s marrying my best friend.” I pulled out my cell phone and ignored the hostile looks the guard tossed our way. Pulling up my bestie’s number, I made the call.
Per usual Jessica didn’t even bother with a hello. “What the hell? I thought you said you were too tired to hang out tonight.”
“I still am.” I laughed. “Not that it really stopped me.”
“Never mind. Hey, is Zag around.” Please say no. Please say no.
“Not right now. He’s having a boy’s night. Why?”
“Um, any chance he’s at his clubhouse?”
“Probably. Wait, what? Why are you asking that?”
I ignored her pointed question. “Could you call him up and ask him to meet me out front of the clubhouse? Call me back if he’s not here.”
“Here?!” Jessica’s shriek had me pulling my phone away from my ear. “What the hell are you doing at the clubhouse, Em? Do you know where you are?”
“Uh, yeah, Jess. Like I said, I’m at—”
“The clubhouse, I heard. You know what I mean. Zag’s club isn’t something you should be screwing around with. Those guys are hard-core. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
“I don’t have time for a lecture, Jess. Just tell him I’m here, and I’m not leaving.”
“When did you get so damn stubborn?” Jessica hissed her irritation. “Fine. But be careful. And you’re telling me all about this later.”
“Fine,” I said, mocking her tone.
“Tomorrow. Over coffee.”
I rolled my eyes. “Just tell him I’m out front, Jess.”
“I will. Coffee. Tomorrow.”
I didn’t wait for Jessica’s reply before I pushed the end button and then shoved my phone back into my purse. What was it about me that made even my best friend, Jessica—who knew all about the crap I went through in high school with my family and Michael—so ridiculously protective of me? I was a strong woman, dammit. If I could survive Michael, I could take care of myself. She of all people should know better.
I took a second to get my irritation under control, then I turned to Tucker with a somewhat fake smile. “He should be right out.”
Sure enough, not even a minute later the gate rolled open and my best friend’s man was striding toward my car. I’d met Zag a few times. He’d practically lived at the hospital while Jess recovered from her gunshot wound. But in most of our interactions he was with her, so I must’ve caught his softer side. There was no evidence of that now.
The streetlight illuminated the harsh planes of his face; his cleft chin and razor-blade cheekbones stood out in sharp relief. Even his shoulder-length hair didn’t soften his edges–it just showcased how much he belonged in this world.
Unlike me. I still hadn’t changed out of my summer job attire. My white summer dress definitely didn’t fit in here. If anything, I looked like a virgin sacrifice. I was way out of my league. But Tucker nervously picking at his nails in the backseat reminded me exactly why I was here doing this. Someone had to look out for this kid. I really hoped his dad was better than his train wreck of a mother.
“Sit tight,” I told Tucker before I opened my car door and stood in the vee between my door and car. “Hey.”
Zag stopped a few feet away, and I could tell by his expression he wasn’t impressed. Either with me, the grinding sound my car was making, or the fact that I was in front of his biker clubhouse.
Something told me it was probably the latter.
“What the hell are you doing here? Because the only reason a single girl like you shows up is to audition to be a club whore. If that’s the case you’ll have to blow Sig first,” he said, nodding toward the stocky guy at the gate. “That’s the price of admission around here.”
“You take that back!” Tucker bounded out of the car and stood toe-to-toe with Zag before I could blink. Even though his nose only came up to the biker’s chest, he shoved a pointed finger in Zag’s face. “Ms. Clark is awesome. She’s not like that!”
“Tuck?” Zag looked from the kid to me and back to Tucker. “What are you—how are you—”
“This would be ‘what the hell I’m doing here.’” I couldn’t help the snide note in my voice. His comment about paying the admittance fee burned. Especially the way he said it. Like I was a prude or something. “Tucker thought his dad was here, and I need to have a word with him.”
I glared at Zag and tilted my head. Hoping that my expression told him what I really didn’t want to say in front of Tucker. Mostly that Zag could go screw himself. Although I was pretty impressed that Tucker was willing to stand up for me with a crazy biker. Hopefully he got some of those amazing qualities from his dad. Maybe Mr. Gifford wouldn’t be as scary as Zag.
Hey, a girl could hope.
“Sig, go get Reb.” Zag barked the order to the biker guarding the gate but didn’t look away from Tucker. “I’m glad Ms. Clark has someone like you to look after her, Tuck. She needs it in a neighborhood like this.”
It wasn’t exactly an apology, but Tucker’s shoulders puffed up with pride at the compliment as he dropped his accusatory finger. It would’ve been cute but for the look Zag sent me. He clearly wasn’t happy that I was in possession of his buddy’s kid. And in this neighborhood.
Hell, neither was I, but that didn’t mean I was just going to hand him over to whoever claimed to be Tucker’s dad. We were gonna have a little conversation first.
My self-righteous resolve crumbled as I caught sight of the biker striding toward us.
He was huge. His wide shoulders cast a large shadow behind him, and from what I could make out in the dim light, there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. He would’ve looked more like a football player than a biker but for the leather vest, boots, and badass swagger.
I had no doubt he was Tucker’s father as the kid took off at a run with a shouted “Dad!”
And then I was treated to the amazing sight of this big, bad biker cuddling with his son. Well, not cuddling exactly—Tucker was eight and a boy, so clearly too old for that, but it was dang close. He clasped Tucker to him for a brief second, and I could’ve sworn he dropped a kiss onto the top of his son’s head. But it was all over quickly when Tucker pulled away and mimicked his dad’s stance.
“What the hell are you doing here, kid? And who brought you?” Tucker’s dad crossed his muscular arms over his equally muscular chest and surveyed me from head to toe. Something in his expression made me think he found me sadly lacking.
Tucker crossed his arms. “This is Miss Clark. She lives two doors down from Mom at the apartments. And she’s awesome.”
A smirk crossed Tucker’s dad’s face. He gave me one more once-over that made my cheeks burn with my blush before he turned back to his son. “That doesn’t explain why you guys are here.”
Tucker quickly lost his defensive stance and ducked his head.
I swallowed hard and stepped forward. “We’re here because I’d like to have a conversation with you, sir. In private.”
Mr. Gifford’s scowl deepened at my “sir.” Between that icy stare, his heavy stubble, and the neck tattoos, I was intimidated. Then there was his overwhelming size—I’d need a step stool to be able to look into the man’s eyes. Not that I wanted to get anywhere near him at the moment—or ever. The cute greeting between Tucker and this man was long forgotten. Now he was every inch a hardened, scowling biker. I had to give myself a mental pep talk to stay put. I was here for Tucker. He was worth every bit of my nervousness. I had to stay until I was sure he was okay—despite the fact that I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else but here.
Of course right then my car made an delightful coughing sound, and the headlights dimmed for a second before the engine leveled out and purred once more. That wasn’t good. I really needed my car to last a bit longer. I couldn’t afford to replace it right now.
Instead of staying toe-to-toe with Mr. Gifford, I ducked inside my car and shut it off before it really embarrassed me by dying. As I stepped back, I ran into a solid object that definitely wasn’t my door—it was more man-shaped. My cheeks still burning with a blush, I was careful to keep a respectable distance between me and Mr. Gifford as I closed my door.
“Your car sounds like shit,” he rumbled.
An aroma of tobacco, leather, and man wafted between us. Why did he have to smell so damn good? I shook my head slightly and turned back to the matter at hand. “Yeah, well, it works for me for now.”
“You serious about wanting to have a word?” He said it more like a threat than a question. Like I was calling him out or something.
I swallowed hard and nodded. I probably should’ve said something to let him know I was serious—Tucker mattered and needed to be taken care of—but really I was so dang nervous. He made me so dang nervous.
Mr. Gifford grunted in response. “Follow me.” Tossing one arm around Tucker’s shoulder, he walked around my car and up the sidewalk.
The gate ahead of us rattled as it slid open. I stared at the razor wire for a beat. Were they trying to keep people in or out? Unwilling to examine that thought too closely, and with my pulse pounding in my ears, I followed them into the compound and the gate clanged shut behind us.Return to Rebellious