Chapter One ~ Burned

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Jasmine

Why didn’t they just pick up the damn phone?

The brick building in front of me takes up a prime piece of real estate on the corner of the block, but its facade is ugly and hardly welcoming. Like the whole area, really. Not that I care since I grew up in a street far worse than this.

The Hammer.

Even the name is ugly, although that’s more to do with my long held prejudices than anything else.

Not going to think about it.

Except I can’t help it. The name reminds me of Thor’s hammer, and anything to do with Norse mythology always makes me think of the Viking Bastards Motorcycle Club. They were a huge part of my life when I was a kid. And when I was older, the president’s son, Tyson Jenson, was my whole world…

I take a deep breath. It’s been ten years since I left that life behind me, and I’m not going back. The only reason I’m in Los Angeles is to sort out my mom’s affairs.

Ancient grief sears through me, and despite the warmth of the late May afternoon I shiver. Mom and I hadn’t seen in each other in years, and that’s the way she seemed to like it. Our weekly phone chats turned into text messages, and half the time she didn’t reply anyway. My secret hope that one day we’d reunite and she’d tell me how proud she was of me shattered three days ago when her landlord contacted me as her next of kin.

And according to the pay slips I found buried in her underwear drawer, this place is where she was working. I tried calling the management at the Hammer, in case they didn’t know she’d passed. And while I could’ve simply mailed them the necessary information, a needy echo of the old Jasmine O’Brien pushed through my hard-won outer shell, and I had go see for myself.

Did I really think Mom might’ve migrated into retail or office work? I spent way too many years as a kid sitting in the corner of dressing rooms while she did her stripper routines not to recognize a seedy club when I see it.

She left her life with the Bastards years ago, but we never talked about it, and she never told me what she’d been doing since. She was only forty-three, which is way too young to die, but was she really still taking her clothes off in front of a bunch of creepy jerks?

Oh God, Mom, why didn’t you just come to Florida with me?

I take a deep breath. It’s not easy to face, but I always wanted her more than she wanted me. Right up until three days ago, I still missed not having her in my life, and now that’s never going to change.

It doesn’t matter if the club is open or not. I’ve seen all I need. But unlike my teen self, I no longer run when faced with tough decisions. With a silent sigh, I steel my nerves and press the security button.

Ten minutes later I’m back out on the street. The woman who saw me said all the right things, but there wasn’t any genuine sorrow the way there would be if someone had lost a friend.

Mom never had many friends.

I fish out the keys to my rental car from my purse. I’ve only been back in California for a day, and already memories I’ve spent so long trying to forget are swarming through my mind. The sooner I get back to my life in Florida the better.

My uneasy suspicion that the Hammer might be affiliated with the Bastards faded as soon as I walked inside the club. It was tasteful and Gothic inspired, and even though I only saw the entry and a small office, there wasn’t anything that hinted it was owned by the brothers.

Huh. Their collective ego is so massive they mark anything they own, so there’s never any question of whose territory you’ve walked into. Never any question that their MC is everything, and God help anyone who tries to say otherwise.

For a couple of seconds, I battle the overwhelming urge to bury my face in my hands, block it all out, and let the tears behind my eyes escape. Instead, I jam the key into the car, my jaw locked in place. I don’t fall apart anymore, and definitely not here, where the slightest hint of vulnerability is like a neon sign saying: mug me now.

Eerily familiar shivers skate along the back of my neck, and I freeze, my heart slamming against my ribs. It’s my imagination. Except I know it’s not. Only one person in the world has ever affected me like this, just by looking at me, without even having to see him.

God, no. Not now. Not ever. I’m not ready to see him again…

Slowly I turn. Swaggering down the sidewalk toward me is the boy I fell in love with when I was thirteen. The boy I left four years later, my heart and soul ripped to shreds.

He’s not a boy anymore.

His dark blond hair is pulled back from his face into that ponytail I always loved, but he’s no longer clean-shaven, and the stubble darkening his jaw takes my breath away. He was always lean and toned, but the intervening years have broadened his chest, and sweet baby Jesus, his biceps are the stuff of legend.

Despicable need curls low in my gut, desire springing to life like a ravenous tiger. I grip the key so hard the metal gouges my flesh, but it does nothing to halt the unwanted hormones flooding my body.

His cocky grin as he eyes my legs causes goose bumps to chase over my exposed skin. It’s like I’ve tumbled back in time and have become the same besotted girl who melted every time Ty turned his sapphire blue gaze her way.

I should get out of here before he comes any closer, but I’m paralyzed, drinking him in, despite the ghostly fear constricting my chest.

Not fear of Ty. Never that. But of his club and everything it represents.

He’s almost within touching distance before his gaze slides from my breasts to my face. For an eternal moment, it’s like the world stands still, just me and him, no history or recriminations between us. And then he blinks, disbelief replacing the predator, and reality smashes back in.

“Jas?” His voice is smoky, sexy, just the way I remember, and inside I’m seventeen again—needy and desperate and overawed that the gorgeous Ty even noticed me, never mind anything else.

I’m not seventeen. And I’m sure as hell not that girl anymore.

“Ty.” My voice is cool and doesn’t betray my thoughts, thanks to years of learning how to mask my true feelings. Although, I guess the therapy helped, too. “It’s been a while.”

Not long enough. I need to leave before he sees the hunger in my eyes. Ten years is too long to still want someone, but I’ve always known that. I just don’t want him to realize it, that’s all.

Great plan. Such a shame I can’t follow it through.

***

Ty

No fucking way.

The words pound through my head, raw and brutal, as Jasmine O’Brien fills every jagged corner of my mind.

She stands there with a strange, distant smile on her face, as though it hasn’t been ten years since she walked out on me.

Ten fucking years. There’s nothing left to say.

“Yeah.” I answer anyway, can’t help myself. Never could, when it came to Jas. Shut the fuck up. Walk on. She’s nothing to me anymore.

“You’re looking well.”

Is she for real? That’s all she has to say to me after all this time?

I drag in a deep breath. Five minutes ago, I was checking her out, turned on by the way that plain black dress looked so damn hot on her. I usually go for the obvious, chicks who are dying for a piece of me, not women who cover everything up. The easy lay suits me. I don’t want to work for pussy. But something about this chick was different.

The irony chokes me. Yeah, she’s different all right. She’s buttoned up and out of place, and by the way I reacted before I’d seen her face, it seems the same twisted chemical reaction that hooked me all those years ago still burns between us.

I dredge up my so-called trademark smile, the one that has chicks in the club dropping to their knees. The smile that Jas once told me was the reason she first fell for me.

Her expression doesn’t even flicker, and red-hot anger blazes through me. What did I expect? That she’d beg me to forgive her? Ask for a second chance?

Drag me into the back of her car for a quick, mindless fuck?

My dick throbs, and that pisses me off more than ever. I narrow my eyes so she can’t see the lust, and ignore her attempt at small talk. “What’re you doing here?” It hits me that she must’ve come here to see me. She’s in my territory, right opposite the Hammer. Had she been about to go in? Or had she just come out?

Why?

She’s not been back to L.A. in years. Not that I’ve ever stalked her, but word gets around. I would’ve known.

“Oh.” For the first time, uncertainty flickers across her face, reminding me of my Jas, and it’s like a punch to the gut. It vanishes in a second, and she gives me another bland, impersonal smile that scrapes along my nerves like barbed wire. “My mom passed away a few days ago. I’m just seeing to her affairs.”

My anger drains as I catch the haunted look in her eyes before she lowers her lashes. “Shit, Jas. I’m sorry.”

Her mom wasn’t that great to Jas when she was growing up, but she was still her mom, and I guess Jas loved her, even though they hadn’t seen each other in years. For a wild, crazy second, I almost pull her into my arms, the way I would’ve when we were dating. I scowl and hunch my shoulders. It’s been a long time since anyone has needed me the way she did. She was the only one who ever saw the other side of me, the side that didn’t belong to the Bastards. A dull pain grips my chest. That hidden side of me died the day she left, but some nights I’d give almost anything just so I could let down my fucking guard again.

“Thanks.” She brushes imaginary dust from her dress with the tips of her fingers and avoids looking at me. “I appreciate it.”

Christ, it’s like we’re strangers. I guess we are. Jas sure as hell isn’t the same girl I remember, who’d wind her arms around my neck and give me a sweetly innocent kiss every time we got together.

No. But I still want to plunge my hands through her gorgeous black hair, even though she’s piled it all up on top of her head instead of wearing it loose like she used to.

What the hell? That’s over. Done. Fuck, the last thing I should be thinking is how good it always was between us.

Concentrate.

“Anything I can do, let me know.” The words are gruff, and I’m still scowling, but this situation is like nothing I’ve ever imagined. I’ll make sure Bella, who keeps on top of the admin side of things at the Hammer, sends Jas any outstanding wages owed to her mom. Apart from that, I can’t think of any way I can help, but for old time’s sake and all that shit, I’ll do whatever she wants.

She catches my gaze again, and I’m lost in those deep brown eyes of hers, just like when she was fourteen and for the first time I saw her as more than the shy kid of one of the Bastards’ strippers. Even at sixteen I’d had my fair share of chicks already, but after that day she was the only girl for me. And I didn’t care who knew it, or how much grief the older brothers gave me for it. My fate was sealed the first time I kissed her, and I stupidly assumed she felt the same.

I forcibly relax my fists. Jas played me for a fool, but it was my fault for letting her. I damn well learned my lesson, and that’s a fact.

“That’s kind of you.” There’s a faintly husky note in her voice, and she clears her throat. The sane section of my brain is telling me to end this now, but I can’t walk away. Not when she’s obviously upset. I never could walk away from Jas. “But everything’s under control. I just need to clear out her apartment now, that’s all.”

The old Jas would’ve wanted my help. This new everything’s under control Jas really is a stranger. Why do I care? The past we shared is dead to me.

And I still can’t move my fucking legs. “You staying there?”

“Yes. There’s heaps of stuff to sort out, so I’ll just work through the night. The quicker I finish, the sooner I can leave.”

Suits me. I sure as hell don’t want to run into her again. “Still living in Florida?” Her mom might’ve worked for me, but she never mentioned Jas in my hearing, and Jas was the last person I’d ever talk about to anyone, least of all her own mother. I didn’t care what she did after she left L.A.

Still lying to myself? I craved news of Jas, but never went digging for it, in case I found out she’d gotten married and had kids. It would’ve killed me.

Even after all these years I still don’t want to know.

“That’s right.” She doesn’t make any move to get in her car, but tension spikes from her as though I’ve crossed an invisible line. I don’t want to know about her life, but there’s a self-destructive streak that can’t let it go, that needs an answer to shut down the question that plagues me when the cheap booze and sex aren’t enough to numb my mind. And I’ll never get another chance to ask.

“Married?”

She gives a brittle laugh, as though I just asked something outrageous. “Hardly. You?”

Not married. Doesn’t matter. Morbid relief washes through me just the same.

“Nah. Why tie myself down to one chick when I don’t have to?”

She doesn’t answer right away, and for some reason my smart retort doesn’t make me feel as good as it should. Then again, this isn’t some random girl who means nothing to me. It’s Jas, and she’s the only one I ever imagined spending a lifetime with.

Get a fucking grip. Jas doesn’t matter to me anymore, remember?

“Well.” She pulls open the door. “It’s been good catching up, Ty. Take care.” And with that, she slides into the car and drives off.

I watch her disappear around the corner, but it’s not a sense of freedom that floods through me now that we’ve had our long overdue confrontation and she’s gone. It’s like I’m high on coke, wired to the max, and worse, my fucking hard-on is killing me.

Jas always screwed with my head when we were teens. Difference was, back then I liked it.

No chick rules my actions anymore. Not even Jas. Especially not Jas. I’ve business to sort in the Hammer, and tonight I’ll get wasted and laid and once again forget about Jasmine O’Brien.

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