The red, white and blue rally used to be a high point for Ardy Larkin. The festival brought in enough money for the town to scrape by, and added a bit of excitement to the air. This year everything’s different. Her father made a deal he couldn’t back, and now her life is forfeit. Demanded as payment for their debt she finds herself attached to the biggest, baddest, member of the Dueling Devils M.C., their president, Demon.
In need of someone to watch his children while he was away, Ardy Larkin seemed like the perfect solution to all Demon’s problems, until he caught a case of feelings for an innocent girl who didn’t belong in his world. When a dangerous situation forces his feeling to the forefront, he shows her what it means to be claimed by a member of the Dueling Devils.
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Normally, the rumble of motorcycles put butterflies in Ardy Larkin’s stomach. The Red, White, and Blue Rally brought in a huge portion of money that kept the economy in Denton, North Carolina from being dead in the water. Last year, her father made a deal with the Devil—The Dueling Devils to be exact. The one-percenter biker gang fronted him enough cash to keep the family bar and grill open. The terms had never been talked about in her presence, but she knew for a fact they were short. They’d barely kept themselves clothed and fed this year. Now, it was time to pay the piper. What will the cost be?
Ardy shifted her weight and watched the chrome and steel beasts zip by the window. A group of bikes broke away from the stream and lined the parking spaces in front of the bar. Her legs turned to rubber, and she caught the edge of the counter top, holding on for dear life as she forced herself to remain standing. Red-horned caricatures of devils faced each other below a white 1 percent emblem on their vests. The Dueling Devils patches were impossible to mistake. The door swung open. Her heart slapped against her ribs.
She feigned a coolness she didn’t feel, wiping the bar with her sanitized towel. Boots stomped over the floor toward her. The swinging doors that separated the main area from the entrance flapped together.
“Ardy.” Her father’s voice held concern.
“Yes, sir?” She looked up. Her father’s stormy blue eyes bored a hole into her. Worry and concern clouded their normal vibrancy. The ever present smile considered Pat Larkin’s trademark was gone.
“Close down the shop and head home early, okay?” Shocked, she stared at him, rooted to the spot. They never closed early. “Ardy.” The terse tone of her father’s voice broke through her stupor.
“I’m on it, Da.” She placed her towel in the dirty bucket they laundered daily, and stepped from behind the bar. The sensation of eyes on her back amplified with every step she took. Flipping the sign from open to closed, she turned the dead bolt.
“Thank you. Now, straight home,” her father said.
“Oh no, I think she should stay.” The husky voice made her belly bottom out like the tallest roaster coast at an amusement park. “Your failure to come through is going to affect her directly. I think she deserves to know about it up front.”
She rotated slowly and faced the man effectively taking a wrecking ball to her life—Demon, the Dueling Devils’ president. The sheer size of him intimidated her. At least six-foot-three with broad shoulders and a solid build, the man was massive. Bronze skin peeked out from beneath the mural of colorful tattoos that covered the thick muscles of his arm. Mesmerized by his magnetism, she moved her gaze up to his face. A square jaw, long, straight nose, and oval-shaped face gave him rugged beauty. His brown eyes held novels full of experience. He couldn’t be much more than late thirties, but those eyes were wizened. Her mouth dried out, and her muscles tensed. What could he possibly want with me? Illustration of degradation, unwanted sexual advances, and submission danced behind her lids.
She’d seen the house mouses who didn’t want to be where they ended up. Dead eyes, fake smiles, and strain were the things each one seemed to have in common. Demon focused in on her, and their gazes clashed. Like a snake trapped by the flute notes played by a charmer, she found herself unable to look away.
“What the hell does Ardy have to do with any of this?” Her father’s chest heaved. He stood ramrod straight, clenching his hands, but his voice remained tempered. They had a lot riding on this. A show of the Larkins’ infamous Irish temper wouldn’t help a damn thing.
“We need to take this to the office.” Demon nodded toward the double doors that lead to the small office in the back. “Refreshments for my boys?”
“Of course .” Her father nodded. “Ardy, stay here and serve them.”
“No, she comes with us,” Demon said.
The no-negotiable tone made her stomach clench. Blood rushed in her ears. Questions swirled in her head, swarming like a hive of agitated bees trying to protect their queen from danger. Overwhelmed, each thought felt fleeting, moving out of her grasp before she could get a handle on it. Panic dumbed her. Like a deer caught in headlights, she lost the ability to rationalize. The walk to the office was the longest of her life. Ushered into a chair by her father, she sat beside him on the opposite side of the desk from Demon.
“Do you want to tell me what you meant out there?” her father said.
“She’s the payment I’ll be collecting for your debt,” Demon said.
The world spun, and she swayed as the impact stole her breath. She gripped the arms of the chair to anchor her and took deep breaths. Don’t throw up, don’t throw up. This didn’t happen in real life, not to women like her. She’d been a straight A student and hadn’t lost her virginity until twenty, for Christ’s sake.
“Bullshit!” Her father’s voice boomed in the empty space. His meaty fist pounded the wooden surface in front of him.
Demon’s jaw clenched. A pending sense of doom rocketed through her body, and she surged forward.
“Dad, let’s hear him out.”
“What?” Her father turned his head to stare at her. His round face was beet red, and a vein throbbed in the center of his forehead. “This isn’t the eighteen-hundreds. I’m not auctioning you off like some kind of whore.”
“Did I say I wanted her for sex?” Demon asked.
“What else would you want her for, Demon?”
“You’d best watch your tone, Paddy. You make a deal with the devil, he’s going to eventually come to call, especially when you don’t deliver.”
The quiet promise of violence in Demon’s voice wasn’t lost on her. She grabbed her father’s arm and dug her nails into the flesh of the corded muscles built up from years of manual labor. There were six other people in her family to worry about. He couldn’t afford to be out of commission.
“I apologize,” her father said with a thick brogue. The Irish accent always became more pronounced when strong emotions hit. Her mother claimed that’s what pulled her toward her father in the first place. Her parents were an odd pair. The staunch Catholic Irish man, and the small town Baptist African American girl—it hadn’t been an easy road to pave.
Demon nodded. “I’ll let it slide this once, given the circumstances and the fact that no one else is around to witness it. Don’t make the mistake of forgetting yourself again.” The air seemed to lose oxygen. The room shrank like some medieval torture chamber.
“What I find myself in need of is a live-in nanny. I know this family. You’re good people. She’s the oldest of four children, who’s always looked out after her younger siblings. When she grew up she tended the bar.”
She gaped at Demon, stunned by his spot—on summary. He smirked. The devilish grin changed him completely. The scary factor gave way to sexy, and she did her best not to drool. Jesus, too much work and no recreation has sent me around the bend.
“I know everything that goes on this town, Ardy,” Demon said. The sound of her name on his lips made her shiver. “My sister’s charter is here.”
“That’s it? You want her to watch someone’s kids?” Her father frowned, narrowing his eyes.
“No.” Demon’s eyes flashed. “It’s for my children. I don’t like imposing on my boys’ families all the time, or leaving them with some biker bunny. I need a more permanent arrangement”
Relief crashed over Ardy like a wave. “I can take care of children in my sleep.” She latched onto the familiar task like a lifeline. “How many are there, and what ages?”
Demon shifted his attention to her. “Two. Harley is three, and her brother Rocket is four.”
She memorized the information, turning the unique names over in her mind. “Oh those are sweet ages.” Ardy smiled.
“Yeah, they’re good kids, believe it or not.” Demon snorted.
“And how long would this be for?” her father asked.
Demon narrowed his eyes at her father. “Until I feel like the debt’s paid.” He leaned forward. “Is that going to be a problem?”
Her father ground his teeth together. “You expect her to uproot her life and what, go with you?” He drummed his fingers on his desk.
“She’d have the rally to adjust to Harley and Rocket, and say her goodbyes. But when we pull out of this town, she’ll be with us. I didn’t make this happen, Paddy. Don’t look at me as if I came in out of nowhere and shook you down. You know we’re not in the business of generosity.”
“It’s fine. I’ll do it. Birdie can run the bar in my stead. She’s just as capable. I know she can swing college and work,” Ardy said, frantic to solve this peaceably. She’d seen the destruction the Devils could do. It wasn’t something she needed to go around feeling responsible for. Arrogant or not, Demon had been right when he said this would be getting off easy. She’d seen the gang burn down an establishment before to prove a point.
“Ardy.” Her father shook his head. Shame filled his eyes. Family above all had been drilled in her head from the minute she’d been old enough to comprehend it. She wouldn’t let him back out now when they could solve this issue peaceably.
“Looks like I’m getting that overdue vacation, huh, Da?”
He shook his head.
Demon cleared his throat. “My kids are here. I expect you to spend time getting to know them, making sure they’re comfortable before we get back home. I’m a busy man, away more than I’m home. I want to know things in my house are as they should be.” The steely determination in his dark eyes turned her blood cold. They promised pain if she did wrong by his kids.
“I—I understand,” Ardy said.
“Good, I’ll be back around this evening with them. Be ready to go back to the hotel with us.”
“I—okay?” She glanced at her dad, who issued a curt nod. If he lost it now, things would get ugly fast. You didn’t mess with the Dueling Devils. People who mouthed off, or double crossed them, had a way of disappearing, or wishing they could. Nerves made her bounce her leg.
“I think you should get home and get your things together. It’s time Demon and I speak alone.”
Uncertain of who trumped who in this situation, she turned to glance at Demon, who nodded. “Oh yeah, I think we’ll get along just fine,” Demon said with a sly smile.
Heat filled her cheeks, and she looked away, embarrassed by the spark of excitement that rose in her chest. She’d never been out of town other than away games during basketball season in high school. There was freedom in leaving behind everything she knew, and the mile-high pile of responsibilities that tied her to the bar. She loved her family, but she often dreamed of more. In a town where couples had known one another since the womb and been married off right out of high school, she’d always felt like the odd man out.
Hindered by the responsibility of playing surrogate mother while her parents scrimped together every penny they made to get the bar up and running, she’d never really had a chance to connect to anyone on that level. Guilt made her lower her head as she stood. I should be terrified. What kind of a person wants to leave behind their home?
Ashamed, she slunk out of the office and took the back exit.
She sat inside her car, gathering her thoughts as she ran over what she’d tell her mother. There’d be hell in the Larkin home. Her mother had been against dealing with the Devils in the first place. Having her firstborn whisked away like some fairytale gone wrong would only exasperate the rift her father’s decision made.
Her thoughts wandered back to Demon. He ran the Dueling Devils with an iron fist, made men twice his size quake in fear, but cared enough to hire a nanny for his kids? Hell, him having kids had come as a shock. What happened to the mother? Full of questions with no answers, she started up the reliable sedan and pulled out of the parking lot.
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