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Chapter 1

For the millionth time in the last two hours, I glance at the familiar face on the crinkled missing person flyer. Kortney is my cousin, for God’s sake! Her disappearance should stir shock, disbelief, or dismay. Instead, I wonder how she made it to twenty-two in the first place.

Your job has hardened you too much.

Shifting, I seek a more comfortable position in the rigid black plastic chair I slumped into half an hour ago. Around me, the Wilkes-Barre City Police Headquarters hums with activity. Nearby, a man answers a phone with a bored, “Hello.” A printer whines as it spits out paper. The water cooler, just visible beyond the cubicle opening, gurgles. Sounds I’m so very accustomed to. The usual soothing soundtrack accompanying my line of work. Except for today.

A loud honk snaps my attention to the distraught woman on my left as Aunt Paige blows her nose. I pluck another Kleenex from the floral box on the gray utilitarian desk in front of us, awkwardly handing it to her.

This is why you’re a forensic psychologist instead of a cop.

Just hole me up in a quiet office, pouring over documents and photographs, where I have zero contact with a victim’s grieving loved ones.

Paige dabs her red-rimmed brown eyes and clears her throat. “Thank you, Skye.”

Worry accentuates the creases on her uncharacteristically makeup-free face. Her dyed blonde hair, normally curled for even a trip to the grocery store, falls limply to her slumped shoulders.

“We’re almost done Mrs. Palka, I promise,” assures the female officer across the desk as she brushes her long braids behind her ear. The brass pin on her navy blue uniform reads ‘Officer Montgomery’, but it’s still odd for me to think of her as anything other than Nia, my college roommate.

My mother, from her post on Aunt Paige’s other side, leans back to catch my gaze. When our identical blue eyes lock, it’s like staring into a mirror set to reflect forty years into the future. Her face, the same round build as mine, with high cheek bones and prominent pointed nose, projects honest concern for her niece. But we both know Kort’s history.

A few tears pool in my eyelids. Blinking them back, I pray Kort turns up safe and sound. My aunt’s distress hits too close to home.

Breaking our eye contact, Mom drapes her arm around the shoulders of her younger sister, pulling her close for a moment to whisper in her ear. Paige relaxes almost instantly.

Thank God for Mom.

She offers consolation instinctually, radiating a calming aura in times of crisis. Always says the right thing. Too bad the right thing to say to Aunt Paige when she showed up at our door this afternoon, distraught over her daughter’s disappearance, was, “Skye can help us find her.”

They both expected me to pluck Kort’s whereabouts out of thin air, as if being a criminal profiler somehow made me psychic. The most help I could offer involved calling Nia, leading to our presence in her cubicle on this otherwise gorgeous July Saturday.

I reexamine Kort’s face on the streaky homemade flyer. Except for our chestnut hair, we bear no familial resemblance. The selfie lifted from Kort’s Facebook profile portrays a serious young woman with sunken brown eyes, long narrow nose, and prominent cheek bones in a too-thin face. A few scabs dot her skin, poorly covered with concealer a couple shades too dark.

Nia clears her throat lightly. “Just a few more questions to complete the report. To the best of your knowledge, did Kortney use any recreational drugs?”

Aunt Paige hems and haws. “Yes, heroin,” she confesses in a rush. “But she wanted to get better, she really did. The last time I spoke to her, last Saturday, she mentioned beds opening soon at a rehab. My Kort is a good girl, but she fell in with a bad crowd.”

Despite the gravity of the situation, it takes effort to keep my jaw off the floor. Since a teenager, Kort’s been Commander and Chief of “the bad crowd”. Maybe she would have been different if her dad hadn’t taken off before she could walk. Or not. She might simply have been a wild child no matter what.

“Did you contact the rehabs to see if she checked in?” Nia inquires, her fingers freezing over the keyboard and silencing the near constant tap-tap-tap.

Paige nods. “I got a list from the county assistance office and called them all. None have any record of Kortney checking in. And she wouldn’t have just gone without letting her manager at McDonalds know. She needed that job. At the end of her shift Saturday she told him she’d see him on Monday, then never showed.”

Not exactly a smoking gun.

Kort’s never been reliable. A lesson I learned at sixteen, after she convinced our cousin, Andrea, and me into sneaking beers behind the adults’ backs at a family picnic. Then she let us take the fall while she slinked off with her newest sleazy boyfriend of the week.

Miraculously, Kort finished high school relatively unscathed by her behavior. She even managed to eke out one semester at community college before her affinity for partying, alcohol, and weed led her down a darker path. About the only thing she hadn’t done was get pregnant. 

Instead, I’d accidentally earned that scarlet letter at eighteen, a fact Kort still likes to rub in my face six years after giving up my daughter for adoption. She needn’t remind me. My cesarean scar does that every day, along with advertising my indiscretion to every man I’ve been intimate with since.

“Those are all my questions,” Nia announces. “Is there any other relevant information you feel I should include in my report?”

Aunt Paige looks to me for the answer, and I shake my head.

“What happens now?” Paige asks Nia hesitantly, wringing her hands in her lap.

“I’ll enter Kortney into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Once she’s in the database, other police departments and hospitals will see she’s been labeled as missing if they encounter her.”

Wisely, Nia neglects to mention the use of the system by many morgues to help identify Jane and John Does.

“What about searching for her?” my mother asks. “When will that start?”

Nia and I exchange a brief glance.

“Unfortunately, Mrs. Winters, our protocols do not allow us to search for a missing adult unless we believe the person to be of unsound mind, a danger to themselves or others, or if there is evidence of foul play. In this case, none apply.”

“But Kort wouldn’t just leave of her own accord without telling me,” Paige insists, face contorting as new tears streak down her cheeks. “She’s been checking in with me weekly. When she missed her scheduled call this morning, I called her roommate. She hasn’t seen her since Sunday. Something bad must have happened to her. It’s a mother’s intuition!”

“Our officers will keep an eye out,” Nia soothes. “But without a report of a break in or signs of a struggle inside the apartment, unfortunately, that’s really all we can do at this time.”

Mom pulls Paige into another sideways hug. “I’ll help you look for Kort. So will Skye.”

My eyebrows soar toward my hairline. “Umm, yeah, of course,” I choke out.

Still expecting you to work a miracle, it seems.

With some assistance from Mom, Aunt Paige rises, still dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.

“Skye, do you have a minute?” Nia asks suddenly.

My eyes swivel to my mother and she nods. Her chin length chestnut hair, graying at the roots, quivers with the movement. “We’ll wait for you in the car.”

Neither Nia nor I speak again until Mom and Aunt Paige are both well out of earshot.

“I’m really sorry we had to waste your time.” I cast an apologetic glance at Nia, rubbing the neckline of my black racerback tank top. “Kortney is either dead of an OD or she’s run off with the latest guy promising to finance her habit. But I needed to try to ease my aunt’s mind.”

“It may not be as simple as that,” Nia replies, a slight frown marring her flawless onyx face. Dressed in her uniform and black utility belt, complete with Glock, she still manages to make my Bermuda length jean shorts and baggy tank top look slatternly. “Can you hang on a sec?”

I nod, stiffening, as Nia strides out of the cubicle. Several minutes later she reappears with a thick manila envelope.

“Chief Rafferty cleared these for you.” She offers me the envelope with a nervous smile.

Eyes wide, I accept it cautiously. “What’s this about?” Peeking inside, I find a stack of missing persons reports.

“Two years ago, I would have brushed off Kort’s case the same as you. But now…” She bites her bottom lip, head shaking. “It’s like a broken record, Skye. We keep getting reports of missing young women with no signs of foul play. On average, two or three a month. And they stay missing. That’s difficult to do, unless they’re dead. And even then, we’re not finding bodies.”

A small shiver rattles my shoulders as a chill creeps up my spine. “You want me to build a victim profile, see if these cases are connected?”

“It might help find your cousin…”

I raise my hand to stop her mid-sentence. “You don’t need to talk me into it. You know I’d do this for you even if Kort wasn’t missing.”

Nia grins. “You’re the best, Skye. I have an opening in my schedule next Monday morning at nine. Could you come in then and give me a report on what you’ve come up with?”

“Next Monday works for me. Good timing. I’ll be busy packing for my move after that.”

“Yeah, leaving me in hillbilly hell while you chase your next adventure in D.C.,” Nia teases, a mock pout on her full lips before returning to serious. “I am really sorry about your cousin.” She pulls me into a quick hug. “I hope she’s found safe.”

“Me too. We weren’t super close, but I don’t wish ill on her. And I hate seeing my aunt so upset. Thanks for your patience filing the missing person report. See you next Monday.”

Outside, a wall of hot humid air hits me. I dash across North Washington Street to the four-level parking deck squatting on the other side, smiling slightly at the irony of jaywalking in front of police headquarters. Sliding into the cramped backseat of my mother’s aqua Camry, the sight of Aunt Paige in the front seat, her head in her hands, prickles my skin. Only an occasional sniffle punctuates the thorny silence as my mother drives toward the small suburb of Laflin.

“We can come in and keep you company,” Mom offers as we idle in front of Paige’s faded canary-yellow half double home. “Tom’s out riding with the guys, so it wouldn’t be any bother.”

My aunt shakes her head. “Thank you, Barb, but no. You and Skye have already been such a help. I’m exhausted. All I really want to do is print some more flyers and go to bed early.”

“We’ll be over after Mass tomorrow to help put up the flyers, then,” Mom promises.

Once Paige slips safely inside her front door, Mom pulls away and conveys us homeward. I bite my tongue for the remainder of the ride. The car slows in front of our red brick bi-level house. Mom turns into the descending driveway and presses the button to start the garage door rising.

Unable to keep my thoughts to myself any longer, I blurt, “With Kort’s problems, you know it’s likely she’s—”

“I understand the odds,” my mother interrupts. She shakes her head violently. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t be hopeful. Paige was there for us when we lost Aaron, so we’re going to be there for her now. To whatever end that might lead.”

 

*   *   *

 
A guttural roar pounds my eardrums as a dozen motorcycles turn into the driveway, pulling my thoughts away from the missing persons reports littering the living room table. Vibrations rattle the heirloom tchotchkes on the shelf above the flat screen TV and drown out Tom Llamas’ recitation of the day’s news. My mother raises the volume a few notches, a smile flitting across her lips. We share the unspoken relief.

Dad and his crew are home. Safe. My ears track the rumbling engines as the band of bikers descend into the backyard. One by one, the motors cut out. A door slams, and muffled men’s voices rise through the floor.

My mother returns the TV volume to normal, then peeks over at me. “Skye, when the pizzas arrive, take them downstairs for your father and do some recon for me.”

My eyebrows rise. Now what? “Recon?”

“Your father wants to take in another stray.” She purses her lips slightly. “I need you to make sure he’s not going to rob us blind or murder us in our sleep.”

Forget moving to D.C., you should start a freelance profiling service for northeast PA. Ink barely dry on your Master’s and Aunt Paige, Nia, and Mom are all vying for your skills.

“That’s the second time today you’ve overestimated my abilities. Criminal profilers usually get involved after a crime,” I remind her.

“That may be, but you’re good at reading people. And I value your opinion.”

My cheeks flush lightly under her praise. Dammit. She knows exactly how to manipulate me. “Tell me about the stray.”

“I don’t know much. His name is Wes Carson. Your father feels bad for him because he moved to Wilkes-Barre a few weeks ago and rents a room at the Motor Coach Inn.”

I grimace. The Motor Coach Inn meets every qualification of a fleabag motel. They rent out cheap rooms at a weekly rate to only the most desperate. Even hookers avoid the place.

“Anything else? A job? Obviously, he has a Harley or he wouldn’t be riding with Dad.”

“He works at the Amazon warehouse in Hazleton with Dave Burski, who introduced him to your father. He just went through a nasty divorce and his ex took everything but his bike.”

Ugh, Dave. Strike one against Mr. Carson.

I blow a stray hair out of my face, unsurprised Dad asked if the guy can move into the bedroom in our basement. Wes Carson fits the stereotypical charity case appealing to my father’s heart of gold. No matter how many times his generosity has turned around to bite him in the ass, Dad never gets jaded. Over the years, he’s helped a bunch of folks get back on their feet. We’ve also been robbed, cheated, and visited by the police, so I understand Mom’s reluctance.

“I’ll talk to this Wes Carson, but I can’t guarantee anything. You know how Dad gets.”

Pulling out my embarrassingly basic Android smartphone with a spider-webbed screen I can’t afford to fix yet, I type ‘Wes Carson’ and ‘PA’ into Google. Half a million hits come back for the ridiculously common name. I try Facebook next. None of the profiles belong to a new divorcee working at the Amazon Distribution Center, sending a wave of irritation through me.

You’re too used to high tech snooping, God forbid you hold an actual face-to-face conversation with someone.

Ignoring the self-deprecating thought, my attention returns to the missing persons files.
Twenty minutes later, the doorbell chimes. I trot down the short flight of steps leading to the beige carpeted landing. The decorative oval mirror above the sideboard reflects my frizzy, ponytailed chestnut hair as I grab the wad of bills waiting there.

“Just grab me a slice of plain before the vultures descend,” Mom calls, leaning over the oak railing separating the living room from the stairwell. Her form retreats to the sofa as the Pennsylvania lottery jingle blares through the television speakers.

Opening the front door, I accept an armful of pizza boxes and two buckets of chicken wings before handing the waiting teenager a fistful of twenties. Then I mentally steel myself for what I expect to be a short, awkward conversation with the perplexing Wes Carson. The sooner I get this over with, the sooner I can return my attention to the missing persons reports.

Inhaling the luscious aroma of baked dough and cheese, my stomach grumbles. Balancing the food, I cautiously descend the steps, moving by memory. Cold tile chills my bare feet at the bottom. To my right, a door leads to our two-and-a-half car garage. The washer and dryer sit to the left. Directly in front, somewhere beyond the towering pizzas, stands the door to our finished basement.

We jokingly refer to the space as Dad’s clubhouse because he’s the founder and unofficial president of the Back Mountain Bandits motorcycle club. A bunch of toddlers sporting paper bag vests and riding big wheel tricycles would make a fiercer gang. Groping around with my feet, I find the door and kick it a few times in lieu of knocking. A few seconds later, it swings open.

“Whoa, let me help you with those,” offers a deep, unfamiliar voice.

The top half of my pizza stack suddenly disappears, and I’m left gawking at an incredibly handsome young stranger with amazing chocolate-brown eyes. His lips rise into a slightly lopsided smile. A five o’clock shadow darkens his attractive oval face, with a strong chin and perfectly proportioned nose. God doesn’t manufacture men like this very often.

Judging by the four or five inches he’s got on me, he stands just shy of six feet. Slightly shaggy mahogany hair curls around his ears, tousled from being jammed into a helmet not so long ago. Tan skin, a couple shades darker than mine, looks more the result of genetics than sun.

This is Wes Carson! The universe must be throwing you some instant karma for helping with Kort.

“Umm, thanks,” I mumble, my words mostly directed at the universe.

It takes my stunned feet a few seconds to step through the doorway once the sexy stranger moves aside. He trails me along the cherry stained bar lining the wall to our right. The thick column that abuts the end forms an archway into the kitchenette behind the wood slab. A green-topped pool table dominates the space to my left. Beyond it, garish black and orange decorations speckle the beige walls in an homage to Harley Davidson. Two doors disrupt the visual assault, one leading to the basement bedroom, the other to a Jack and Jill bathroom.

I step into the kitchen, both of us setting our pizzas down on the bar top.

With the boxes out of his arms, the full view of this hunky newcomer steals the air from my lungs. A taut black t-shirt accentuates his toned biceps and chest. Part of a tattoo pokes out from under his right sleeve, though not enough to make out the design. His relaxed fit, dark blue jeans sit low on his hips, with a tear in his right knee and cuffs revealing the toes of black motorcycle boots.

Breathe. I finally suck in a lungful of air. Blinking is good, too. Yes, I do have functional eyelids now that I remember to use them.

Ringing laughter tugs me back to reality, reminding me we’re in a room full of bikers. Turning, I poke my head around the side of the column blocking our view of the rest of the finished basement. Across the room, Dave, his back to us, gesticulates grandly from his position between two shabby couches, clearly retelling some hilarious tale. Even my dad appears fully engrossed, hands folded over his beer belly as he chortles. If it were anyone other than Dave, I might wander over to see what’s so funny. Must be good to distract from the Yankees game on the flat screen TV hanging behind him. Instead, I turn back to the relative seclusion of the kitchenette to begin setting out the food.

Before I can open the first box, the stranger offers me his hand. “I’m Wes Carson, by the way.”

The moment our skin touches, his firm but gentle grip ignites a tingling sensation throughout my entire arm, like blood flow returning after it fell asleep. It remains even after I pull away, leaving me speechless.

 

Chapter 2

An amused half smile flits across Wes’ face in the pause after his introduction. “You must be Skyelar,” he continues. “All your dad can talk about is the great job you just got in D.C. A profiler for the FBI or something like that, right?”

My face flushes. Shifting, I rub my suddenly sweaty palms along my shorts before tugging at the hem of my tank top. The ensemble would not have been my first choice had I known I would be coming face to face with a complete stud.

You should have introduced yourself when you shook his hand. Ugh. Now he probably thinks you’re socially inept.

“Nice to meet you, Wes,” I finally reply, finding my voice and manners. “Call me Skye. I’d love to work for the FBI someday, but my new job is with the D.C. police.” Pausing, I decide to get the awkward interview done and over. There might not be time once a dozen hungry bikers raid the food. “So, my mom tells me Dad offered you a place to stay.”

He appraises me with a perceptive smile. “Ah. You’re to profile me and report to the boss. Right?”

I blink, taken aback. Well, no point beating around the bush now.

“Everything you say can and will be used against you in the court of Mom.” My voice stays playful. I’m not trying to make the man feel like he’s under interrogation. Except he is.

Wes chuckles. It’s a deep and pleasant sound I immediately want to hear again.

“Perhaps I should plead the fifth?” he asks.

“That would just make me wonder what you’re hiding.”

I tilt my head to the side, studying him. His brown eyes lock with my blue and I see secrets. I inhale, the air thinning to Mt. Everest proportions. The void between us pulsates with caged energy. I can’t help noticing the subtle swirls in his dark eyes, like milk chocolate melting in a double boiler.

Can he sense your secrets as easily as you sense his?

The unsettling thought rips me from my trance as I break the stare first, blood warming.

“I’m an open book,” Wes offers, hands out and palms up.

I narrow my eyes, planting my hands onto my hips. Those secrets I sensed in his eyes don’t raise any alarm bells, just an honest curiosity as to what he’s hiding. “No. If you were, you would have a social media presence.” His eyes widen slightly. “I already Googled you.”

He seems to rein in the surprise as his arms cross. “Find anything interesting?” he asks casually. Much too casually.

He knows you didn’t find a damn thing.

“You have a terribly common name,” I grumble through gritted teeth.

With a smirk, he leans in. “I know,” he whispers.

Boy, I’d like to wipe that smug look off his lips. Or kiss them.

Fuck! Where did that come from? Keep it together, Winters. He’s just a pretty face.

“Well, I’ll happily report to Mom you’re a sociopath who will murder us in our beds. I’m sure you won’t mind staying at the lovely Motor Coach Inn. I hear their amenities are five stars.”

His face blanches, arms falling to his sides. Now it’s my smile that turns smug.

“Okay, look…” he runs a hand though his hair. Toeing the carpet, he speaks to the floor. “I just went through a divorce. It wasn’t particularly amiable, so I deleted my Twitter and Facebook accounts. I would really appreciate the opportunity to stay here for a little while.”

Sliding my hands off my hips, I tuck my thumbs into my back pockets and take pity on him by changing the subject. “So, you’re friends with Dave?”

Wes looks up from the floor as he shakes his head. “I’m not sure I’d classify us as friends. We work and ride together, but otherwise we run in very different circles.”

I catch the timbre suggesting he has no desire to ever run in those circles, either. Mentally, I take back the strike I gave Wes when I first learned of his association with Dave.

“And what do you do for Amazon?”

“I’m a shift manager.”

Okay, so he’s comfortable in leadership roles. Works and plays well with others, even people like Dave who he may not like much. Finally, a glimpse of his personality.

“Sounds exciting.” I can’t hide the sarcasm.

He shrugs. “It’s a paycheck.”

“But you’d rather be doing something else.” I sense it. “What’s your dream job?”

“Powerball winner,” he shoots back with a cheeky grin.

I laugh. “That’s everyone’s dream, but it’s not a job.”

He takes a step closer, then another, until only a few inches separate our bodies. A whiff of sandalwood cologne invades the air between us. He bends closer to my ear, as if he’s about to impart some great secret. “I’d like to be a spy, like James Bond,” he whispers.

I laugh harder this time and he rewards me with another lopsided smile. After Kort’s disappearance, the levity comes as a welcome distraction.

“Is it because of the gadgets, guns, or girls?”

“Definitely the women,” he replies, a flippant smile gracing his face. “I’m hiring for a Bond girl, if you want to apply.”

He’s flirting with you!

My brain freezes, groping for a witty response. The already charged air between us practically sparks. I grip the edge of the bar for dear life, needing to say something or risk crossing that paper-thin barrier into awkward silence, but my brain reboots too slowly.

With my thought-to-mouth filter not yet fully operational, I blurt, “Sign me up.”

Fuck! You did not just say that?

A hot blush barrels through my skin. Hurriedly, I look away.

“I should get these set out, before the guys riot,” I mumble, beginning to open the pizza boxes. Working on autopilot, my brain digests the idea of this man living in my basement.

Wes steps in to help, unboxing the pies at his end of the bar. The fact he hasn’t said anything since I volunteered to be his Honey Ryder makes me itch. Reaching for the same box, our arms graze, sending more tendrils of energy snaking through my skin. My face flushes again.

“Nice ink,” he remarks with a nonchalant nod toward my right shoulder.

Like a salve, the normalcy of the comment eases my bruised ego and soothes my humiliation. Automatically, my fingers trace the graceful black and gray lines depicting a blooming Easter lily, a second flower still in bud next to it.

I blink away the wetness pooling in my eyes and clear my throat. “Thanks. Maybe you can show me yours sometime?” I gesture vaguely toward his right arm.

Wes shrugs. “It’s nothing special.”

I grab a bunch of paper plates and napkins from the far corner of the kitchenette, plunking them down at the head of the bar. “Thanks for helping with the food.”

“Thanks for bringing it down.” He scans the varieties laid out.

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. The cliché rings inside my head in the raspy voice of my long-dead grandmother.

I shake my head. I’m a grown woman, poised at the cusp of my career, headed to D.C. in four short weeks. On top of that, my cousin disappeared. I don’t want, or need, a man’s heart.

Forget his heart, what about the rest of Mr. Sexy Biker Man? Surely, you want that?

I quiet my traitorous mind. "Don't let me stop you. Dig in."

He shoots me a perfect white-toothed grin, and my heart rate doubles. Grabbing a plate, he takes a slice of pepperoni and of bacon then pauses, frowning at the pineapple topped pie.

“I’ve always been curious,” Wes remarks seriously. “From the perspective of a criminal profiler, what does it say about someone who likes pineapple on their pizza?”

“Probably a psychopath,” I reply, struggling to keep a straight face.

My cousin, Rob, approaches and grabs a plate. He throws me a slow nod, a silent S’up, then chooses two pieces of pineapple pizza before walking away.

Wes’ eyes meet mine and we both grin.
“Definitely a psychopath,” I clarify with a chuckle.

“Hey, Carson,” Dave calls, causing me to jump. Glancing up, I find him standing alongside the pool table, leaning against a cue stick. “You just gonna stand by the pizza all night or are you afraid to put your money where your mouth is?”

“Isn’t it a bit early in the night to get your ass whupped?” Wes replies, grabbing a can of Coke from the mini fridge under the bar. “See you ‘round, Skye,” he remarks over his shoulder, sending me a final crooked smile as he walks away.

“Good luck,” I offer, unintentional sarcasm tainting the words.

He’ll need it. Only one person in this room ever beat Dave at pool.

Smiling, I recall my win last month. Tired of fending off Dave’s repeated requests for a date, I’d offered him a bet I knew he couldn’t refuse: one game of pool and a date with me as his prize if he won. If he lost, he’d never ask me out again. His body language made it clear he thought beating a girl would be simple. I hoped his subsequent humiliation in front of the MC made him finally understand I wasn’t just playing hard to get.

The other guys lay money on the table, a few fools playing the long odds and backing Wes. I’m tempted to stay and watch, just for the eye candy, but witnessing the slaughter of an innocent doesn’t fall high on my to-do list tonight.

If this were a bar, not your father’s basement, you’d be the one hustling Wes, not Dave.

Ignoring my berating conscience, I promise myself those days are behind me now that I’m on the road to gainful employment and no longer a broke graduate student. Taking a couple plates, I select two pieces of bacon pizza for myself and the requested slice of cheese for Mom. I carry them upstairs, hand Mom her plate, and settle onto the beige sofa.

“So, what’s your opinion of Wes?” Mom asks as we eat. “Should we let him stay?”

“I don’t think he’s going to murder us in our beds,” I assure her with a shrug.

“You know we leave for our cruise next Tuesday. I don’t think I’m comfortable with you alone in the house and a stranger in the basement,” she adds hesitantly.

“Mom, I’ll be fine. I’m twenty-four. I survived six years of college in a not-so-great part of Philly. I’ll just carry my pistol.” It slips out before I can censor myself.

Instantly, Mom’s mouth draws a grim line. She’s touchy about my concealed carry permit. “You say he’s not dangerous, but you feel like you need to carry your gun?”

“Chill, Mom. I was joking about the gun.” Her blue eyes remain stony, unwilling to let this go. I turn, meeting her level stare. “There is a deadbolt on the clubhouse door. I’ll use it. And I’m sure you’ve already asked Greg to check in on me while you’re gone.”

Mom’s eyes rip away from mine, signaling her guilt. She nods. “There’s nothing wrong with me asking your brother to look in on you.”

I send her a reassuring smile. “I don’t mind Greg checking up on me, especially if he brings the boys with him. You and Dad have had this vacation planned for a year and a half. I want you to get on that boat and not worry about anything. You both deserve it.”

“I’m your mother, it’s my job to worry.” Her lighter tone portents her cracking resolve.

“It’s only two weeks. I’ll be busy packing and, if she’s still missing, helping Aunt Paige look for Kort. How much trouble can I possibly get into?” That coaxes a smile from her. “You said yourself I’m good at reading people, and Wes seems like a nice guy. Let him stay.”

Finally relenting, Mom nods her head. “Okay, okay. I’ll greenlight the move.”

I look down at my empty plate longingly. Knowing I should march into the kitchen and make myself a salad, more pizza proves too tempting. “You want another slice?”

Forget pizza, you just want another look at Wes Carson.

Mom shakes her head as I stand. Returning to the basement, my skin tingles at the thought of another encounter with the enigmatic Mr. Carson. The third puzzle dumped into my lap today. When it rains, it pours.

Stepping, unnoticed, inside Dad’s glorified man cave for a second time, the pungent scent of pizza, buffalo sauce, and beer assaults my nostrils. All the guys remain gathered around the pool table, eyes locked on an intense game.

Wes must play better than you gave him credit for. Dave hasn’t cleared the table yet.

Sliding into the kitchenette, I snag the last piece of pepperoni and fill a plastic cup with Yuengling Lager from the kegerator. To my right, late evening sunshine pours through the French doors leading to the brick patio. My eyes sweep over the sea of Harleys parked on the driveway beyond, chrome gleaming. Despite my fascination with the sleek beauty of the machines, my chest constricts whenever I consider riding one.

Leaning against the bar, my attention returns to the pool table. I observe the match with a growing appreciation for how Wes’ jeans fit when he bends over to take a shot. As the eight ball spins errantly into a pocket, half the men cheer as the other half groan. Dave grabs a stack of money, making a spectacle of counting it. A few guys offer Wes commiserative pats on the back. Finishing my slice and draining the last of my beer, I begin to gather up the empty pizza boxes as Wes ambles over.

“How’d that ass whupping go?” I ask sarcastically, unable to hold back a smirk.

He flashes another heart-stopping smile. “Yeah, I talked a bigger game than I brought.”

“Don’t feel bad. Dave likes to hustle. He probably thought he’d clear the table in a few minutes. Nice to see someone make him work for it.”

I balance the empty cardboard, so I can take it out to the trash. Wes grabs half the stack. Exiting the French doors into breezeless muggy air, we weave through the throng of bikes and around the edge of the garage. Treading carefully in my bare feet, I pull the lid off the black trash bin and shove the greasy pizza boxes inside.

Turning, I try to guess which bike belongs to Wes. It only takes a moment by process of elimination. I smile at the sparkling chrome, classic black paint, and simple leather. With no windshield, fairing, sissy bar, or saddle bags, I suspect Wes to be a no-frills kind of guy in many aspects of his life.

“Nice Sportster Custom.” I eye up the bulging gas tank, slightly larger than the tank on the regular Sportsters. A silver skull missing its bottom jaw, with blacked out eyes and nose, looks back at me from the cover of the chrome air filter casing. “Willie G skull on the ham can is a nice touch, but it leaves me to guess if it’s an 883 or 1200?”

His wide eyes betray his astonishment. “883 I had converted to a 1200.”

I step closer to Wes’ bike, noting the visible air filter around the edges of the cover, an aftermarket feature added to give it more power.

“Good choice on making it free-breathing.” Then I gesture to his modified exhaust pipes, teasing, “Vance and Hines short shots, huh. Stock pipes not noisy enough for you?”

Wes grins. “A Harley needs to growl.”

And growl this bike certainly will, as it shakes out your fillings. I grin back as I slowly circle the machine, admiring the clean lines and sculpted leather. On the left side, I notice a petcock valve.

“It’s still got a carburetor, so that makes it older than an ‘07. Looks like you’ve taken really good care of it, though.”

“Thanks. It’s an ‘05 I purchased used.” His eyes skate over my body. “Damn, you really know your bikes.” Admiration rings in his tone.

The compliment makes me squirm, so I brush it off with a shrug. “I basically grew up in my dad’s repair shop. Plus, with three older brothers, I picked up a thing or two.” And I like to browse the occasional Harley catalogue, when Dad leaves one lying around.

Wes rubs his chin. “So now I’m dying to know, what do you ride?”

“I don’t.” I point to the red seven-year-old Ford Focus sedan parked in the grass off the driveway. A diamond shaped yellow sticker on the back window reminds other motorists to ‘watch for motorcycles.’ “I’m strictly a cager. Never ridden a motorcycle.”

“Yeah, okay,” he shoots back with a skewed smile. “Haha, good one. Seriously, I’d like to know.”

I move back onto the patio, Wes following, before I answer. “Seriously, I’ve never been on a moving bike.”

Wes’ eyes search my face and I meet his gaze, projecting sincerity. “For a second, I thought you were just screwing with the new guy, but you’re telling the truth. How can you, of all people, have never ridden a bike? Your dad lives and breathes them.”

Might as well let him in on your not-so-secret issues. It’s just a matter of time before one of the other guys tell him, anyway.

Sighing, I sink into the patio bench. Wes sits next to me, the energy intensifying in the narrow space between our bodies. As I take a deep breath, it brings another whiff of Wes’ sandalwood cologne. The relaxing aroma allows me to swallow past the lump in my throat.

“All my brothers got their first ride on the back of Dad’s bike when they turned ten. I grew so excited for my turn, I started crossing off days on a calendar. Then, two weeks before my tenth birthday, my oldest brother, Aaron, died in a motorcycle crash. A drunk driver blew through a stop sign, leaving Aaron no chance to stop. He was only twenty-six.” An invisible blade twists in my ribcage as I inhale. “I begged my dad and brothers to give up their bikes. For a while, I suffered panic attacks anytime they’d go out on them. I never desired to ride after that.”

I chance a sideways glance at Wes, trying to gauge his reaction to the crazy girl next to him.

He runs a hand through his hair, lips downturned. “Jeez, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to be a jerk when I asked why you didn’t ride.”

“You’re not a jerk, you didn’t know.” I offer him a small smile to soothe his guilt. “And honestly, it is a bit silly that I’ve never ridden. Everyone assumes I’m still terrified, but I got over the crippling fear ages ago. I’ve just… lost all motivation, I guess. And at twenty-four, it would feel awkward to ride behind my dad or brothers.”

Wes’ arm brushes against mine lightly, raising pleasant goosebumps as he turns to face me. “Would it feel awkward to ride behind me?”

My pulse quickens. “No,” I breathe, words barely audible.

Holy shit, is this going where you think it’s going?

Wes grins, “So then, wanna go for a ride?”

I shake my head and his smile fades. Rational people don’t just jump on the back of a stranger’s bike. I recall studying cases that began just like this. Girl leaves bar with guy she just met, turns up in a dumpster a week later.

And yet here you are, considering doing something equally stupid.

“I think I gave you the wrong impression about me. Even if I were an avid rider, I’m not the kind of girl who just hops on the back of a guy’s bike.”

Yeah, those types of women generally expect more than one kind of ride.

“There’s no strings attached, Skye,” Wes replies softly, his arm still brushing mine lightly. Electricity skates up and down my skin, shoulder to wrist. “If you’d like to go for a ride, I’d like to take you. That’s all.” He offers me a wry smile. “I’m not the kind of guy who just invites random women onto the back of my bike. And I certainly don’t expect anything other than your company during the ride.”

“Well, at least we’re on the same page there.”

“So, is that a yes?” His burnished eyes sparkle, catching the fading sunlight.

I hesitate before slowly shaking my head again, hating how my answer makes the excitement die on his face.

“I’m a good rider,” he states, tone more honest than bragging. “Started on dirt bikes as a kid. Never laid one down.”

Some part of me really wants to take him up on his offer, and I think he can sense it, because he smiles. Still, I can’t shake the notion he’s holding back something whenever I meet his eyes.

Plus, you should be focusing on the missing persons cases and Kort!

“Maybe another time,” I offer, hoping he’ll buy the false promise.

"No time like the present, "Wes shoots back, prompting me to shake my head at his persistence. "Come on. I'll only exceed the speed limit by forty, maybe fifty miles an hour," he continues, voice growing lighter. "And pull just one wheelie. Two at the most. Promise." The corners of his lips twitch as he tries to fight an emerging smile.

My face cracks first, smiling as laughter bubbles out, my resolve breaking down under his levity. The continued enjoyment of his company too tempting to resist.

Just one short ride to get it out of your system. Then you can focus one hundred percent on Kort and the missing persons puzzle.

Heart thundering in my ears, I barely hear my own words as I reply, “Let’s go.”


Copyright: Celeste Straub 2018

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