Rough and Tumble
An Excerpt From
Rough and Tumble
1

Molly Preston had never been fired from anything in her life—not babysitting, dog-walking, or even the roller-skating waitress gig where she’d spent half her time skidding along the blacktop on her high school derriere.

First time for everything.

As she sat in front of her boss’s large mahogany desk with its view of the downtown San Diego harbor in the distance, she tried to absorb what Ted Genhaven of the Genhaven, Walwick & Graves accounting firm had just said to her.

Serious error on the SilverNet account . . . wrong number in an assets column . . . nearly cost the firm six figures . . .

“Molly?”

“Yes, sir.” Dammit, she didn’t want him to hear that hint of a quaver in her voice. Didn’t want him to have any clue about all theholy shits and what-ifs racing through her mind as she thought of her slowly disappearing future: her pension, her 401(k), the security that a full-time career of balancing corporate books brought her. Sure, she was only thirty, but she had everything planned down to a T for when she retired. This detour was definitely not on the agenda.

She kept herself steady by concentrating on the glass of ice water that Phyllis, her boss’s assistant, had set in front of him before deserting the office. Ice floating in the water so gently, obliviously, having no idea that Molly’s life was about to come to a dripping, humiliating halt.

Genhaven was laughing softly, leaning back in his chair, where he’d draped his pressed business jacket earlier. All of him seemed manicured, from his smooth nails to his sculpted cheekbones. He wore his fifties well. “You didn’t just call me ‘sir,’ did you?”

“Yes, I did . . .” Sir. Or not-sir.

“You stopped calling me that years ago, right after college, when you were hired.”

Thank God he didn’t sound as doom-ridden as he had a few moments ago. Actually, he seemed relaxed now, a far cry from the starchy firm partner she’d always pictured in his beachside mansion, having a predinner martini, then a postdinner slide between Egyptian cotton sheets for a bout of jackrabbit sex with his Stepford wife.

When he got out of his seat, Molly absently smoothed out her red skirt, which matched the buttoned-up jacket she wore. “Mr. Genhaven”—hell, it was better than sir, she guessed—“I went over those numbers again and again. I was careful, just as I always am.”

“I know, Molly. I’ve kept a close eye on your work. That’s why this error was surprising.”

Was he going to fire her now? He hadn’t said the words yet, but she could feel them coming. The worst part of it was that she wasn’t convinced she’d even made the error. She never made them.

But here she was, thinking about what she was going to do about the payments for her condo in the future—her lovely, peaceful, flower-pathed condo, which she’d judiciously saved up for and finally bought. Yet that was nothing, because what about the money she’d been giving to her sister Margaret, the artist of the family, scrapping for rent money once more?

They’d grown up without much money, and the thought of it happening again made Molly’s hackles rise.

Her boss stood in back of her chair, his citrus cologne making her stomach turn.

“I can go over the accounts again,” she said, “and going forward, I’ll double my efforts to be concise.”

“The error has been managed.” His voice pressed down on her shoulders. “I was the one who caught it.”

“Oh.” She braced herself for the crash of those fearsome words—You’re fired!—but something else took its place.

The sensation of Ted Genhaven’s hand touching her hair.

For a second, Molly wasn’t sure it was even him. It could’ve been the air conditioner that’d just kicked in to battle the late-August weather.

But then he removed all doubt.

“Icy blond,” he whispered. “You’re handling this just like a Hitchcock ice princess would.”

As Molly felt a tug at the low bun she always wore—was he undoing it?—she abruptly scooted up in her chair. What’d just happened? And when, exactly, had some old-movie-loving alien replaced upstanding Ted Genhaven with a pervy body double?

He laughed as she glanced back at him with an extrawide what-the-hell gaze. She was suddenly aware that the hallway louvres on his corner office windows had been shut. He also would’ve told Phyllis to hold all calls because he was in a meeting today.

Do not disturb . . .

When Molly began to stand from her chair, he pushed down on her shoulder. “Let’s talk, Molly.”

She shrugged slightly, trying to tell him she didn’t appreciate the touching, but he didn’t remove his hand. Aside from hoping that a wrecking ball would burst through the wall and take him out, she wasn’t sure what should happen next. All she was sure of was that her creep-o-meter was making some DEFCON 3 sounds—fairly alarmed, but not nuclear just yet.

“You like working here,” he said as she kept perching in that chair.

“Yes, sir.” She added the last part to maintain a distance, just like . . . yes, an ice princess. Her best friends liked to call her that, but from them it was an endearment, a bunch of teasing about the sex life she’d put on hold until . . .

Whenever. Who needed online dating or barhopping? Neither of them had gotten her ahead in life.

Her boss’s mouth tilted in a grin. It wasn’t a grin that made him more attractive, either. “Let me rephrase. You’d like to keep working here, yes?”

She nodded. Margaret needs my help to keep her in her apartment, then there’s my new condo, retirement . . . She kept repeating all of it to herself.

“This was your first and only mistake of note, Molly. You’ve been an asset for a long time. Believe me, I’ve paid attention. You’ve . . . developed . . . very well.”

Creep-o-meter: DEFCON 2. “I don’t think I’m following you.”

He sauntered all the way behind her again, and Molly’s spine went stiffer.

“I only want to talk about ways to forget about this one mistake you made,” he said. “A woman like you can understand that, can’t you?”

A woman like her?

Before she knew what he was doing, he’d slid his hand over her shoulder, to her chest, and into the top of her jacket, his fingers grazing a breast.

She bolted out of her chair, pushing him away at the same time.

DEFCON freaking 1.

“I didn’t make a mistake at all, did I?” she said. God, was she giving out signals that told everyone she hadn’t been laid in . . . well, a long damned time? What made him think it was okay to touch her like this?

He spread out his hands, as innocent as a sweet baby lamb. “Before we jump to conclusions, let’s just take a moment to think. I told Phyllis I’m having a very private meeting with you because you’re getting fired. But, what do you know? You persuaded me to keep you on and give you one more opportunity to impress. Funny how things like that happen sometimes.”

“You set this all up.” She held up a hand, keeping him at a distance. “You’re telling me that you want me to have sex with you right now, just to keep a job I don’t deserve to be fired from.” Bravo! Give her a medal for figuring that out in record time.

Had he done this to other women? She could think of two other blond female employees who’d left their jobs suddenly, beginning a few months ago, after Ted Genhaven had almost gotten a divorce. At least that’s what the rumors had said. But those rumors had never actually accused him of anything.

Her flesh was still wriggling, and she pulled her lapel over the patch of skin he’d touched. In Weirdo Opposite Land, Genhaven somehow took that as encouragement, and he undid the first button on his shirt.

“I wouldn’t compound your first mistake with another one,” he said. “Be reasonable, Molly.”

“This is sexual harassment.”

With a put-upon sigh, he went back to his desk, casually taking a seat, acting as if he had merely unbuttoned his shirt because it was getting hot in here. Then he took a long sip from his ice water and set it down. She couldn’t take her eyes off those floating cubes.

Icy blond, he’d said as he’d pawed at her hair. She should’ve shoved a cube where the sun didn’t shine long before he’d mauled her.

“I think you’ve got me wrong,” he said. “You’re upset, so that’s understandable. Maybe you even need a break from the office for a few—”

“What I need is an attorney.” She’d show him icy.

He folded his hands behind his head and reclined. “Why? I don’t want to fire you.”

Jeez. “It’s still sexual harassment.”

“Molly . . .”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Miss Preston,” he said, sharper now, even if he was still reclining. “You’re clearly uncomfortable being reprimanded for an Accounting 101 error, so perhaps you’ll just have to quit. I have to say, that works out for the firm in the end. Paying severance is a real money suck.”

Had he doctored her accounting work in order to back up this story of his? Power-tripping ass.

Sometimes reactions are immediate. Sometimes they burn slowly and deliciously. This was a slow and delicious time.

She acted cool and calm. Icy blond. As collected as she’d learned to be while growing up, in the shadows of an older, more dramatic sister who’d captured all the attention in the household. As frosty as she’d been taught to be during years of working her butt off to be an esteemed employee here, even at the expense of a real personal life.

Molly had always been such a good study.

She brushed a hand over her suit again, straightening the lapels where he’d disturbed them. Apologetically, she smiled at him. He grinned, obviously thinking that she’d seen the light.

“God,” she said. “Maybe we should start over. This got out of hand, didn’t it?”

“Yes, it did.”

When she moved to his chair just as deliberately as he’d stalked hers earlier, his grin widened.

It started to disappear when she took the ice water from the desk and lifted it high, spilling it slowly and watching the beautiful arc of liquid as it hit his crotch.

He jumped out of his chair. “You bitch—”

“Just putting a little more ice in my blond,” she said, shaking out the last cube so it smacked against his chest, then tossing the glass to the carpet and walking away.

When she opened his door and emerged into the hall, she let herself relish the stunned look she’d seen on his face. And when she decided to leave all her junk in her desk—nothing major in there, anyway—and grab her purse before heading to the elevator, she did a lot more relishing.

Molly didn’t even start thinking again about retirement, or her condo, or how much her sister needed the money she’d been sending to keep a roof over her head until she was sitting in the front seat of her compact car, gripping the steering wheel.

Realizing that her precious future was in pieces.

2

“So this is where the jobless masses end up during work hours,” Molly said four days later, standing with her hands on her hips in the middle of an empty saloon about a half hour outside of Vegas.

One of her best friends, Arden, hooked her thumbs into the belt loops of her cut-off jeans and rocked back on her cowboy-booted heels. Her short, red hair was ruffled from a cuff of hot wind that’d welcomed them to Rough & Tumble, Nevada, and her white tank top showed off the toned arms of a middle school PE teacher.

Like Molly, she was glancing around the rugged bar, but with more enthusiasm. “Our screw-it-all adventures start right here and now, Mol. Project Cheer Her Ass Up.”

“Does my ass have to be cheered in a pit like this?”

Her other friend Sofia was clutching an iPad to her floral blouse just like she was the lone Filipino cast member in Game of Thronesand her shield bore her sigil—a juicy apple with a hearty bite taken out of it. Her long dark hair spilled over a shoulder in a side ponytail as she inspected the surroundings, too: ceiling fans whipping through the cigarette-stale air, neon beer signs lining the walls, mirrored shelves of bottles behind the unmanned bar, along with a painting of a half-naked leather-clad girl straddling a chair backward and staring at Molly with lascivious, heavy-lidded glee. Meanwhile, hair-band rock ’n’ roll played from a corner jukebox near an old potbellied stove with license plates from different states hanging above it. There were even flyers pasted near the Ladies’ and Gents’ bathrooms, advertising Jell-O Fight Night and Tubs o’ Beer Weekends.

“Arden, why in the world would you suggest this place?” Sofia whispered loudly above the music. “Let’s just get to Caesars for mojitos by the pool.”

“In due time,” Arden said, claiming a stool at the bar, even though there wasn’t anyone around to serve. The lack of customers was almost eerie, even if it was around noon. “I thought this would be a nice entry for your blog, Sof. Might as well start off our trip with a rip-roaring story from a biker saloon in a dead mining boomtown. I mean, how cool is this? A biker bar! It’s so sexy and Old West and fun for all three of your followers to read about.”

As Sofia rolled her eyes, Molly sat next to Arden, smoothing her short but modest sundress over her thighs. When they’d first entered town limits, she’d been charmed by Rough & Tumble’s quaintness—the cross-riddled cemetery just off the dusty road, the ragged general store, the stained glass–windowed church clashing with the aluminum-plated diner next to it. There was even a hitching post in front of this hundred-year-old saloon, with its grayish pressed tin blocks, faded wooden posts, and planked boardwalk holding a rickety table and chair in front of the closed doors. The bar’s attitude was clearly posted on a sign in front of the place, too: Beware! Cheap Talk & Loose Women are Permitted in this Establishment.

That had probably been Arden’s favorite part so far. It’d definitely made Molly laugh for the first time in days; it was almost enough to chase away the stress that’d been dogging her since she’d walked out of Genhaven’s office.

The future. Not even a just-forget-about-it trip could erase the fear of not knowing where she’d be next week, much less in a year, after she cashed in her assets. And she hadn’t even told her sister about the check that wouldn’t be coming unless she found a new job pronto. . . .

Arden nudged her arm. “Hey, just keep reminding yourself that you’re gonna call in to the job and use up all your sick days. Make that motherfucker ex-boss of yours fire you. Call his bluff and force him to give you some severance . . . or a decent send-off. You’ve got that sex-starved turd by the balls.”

“I should’ve grabbed his balls while I had the chance.” And twisted. Hard.

“You put them on ice. That was good enough.”

Sofia sat on the other side of Arden, putting her iPad on the bar, accessing her blog’s input page. “We’re here for you, Mol, but there’re going to be a lot of hoops to jump through if you pursue this sexual harassment thing. . . .”

Arden interrupted. “What, are you trying to discourage her?”

“No,” Sofia said. “I’m in human resources. I know about this stuff. It won’t be easy.” She leaned around Arden and smiled. “But that’s why friends can come in handy.”

Molly tried to breathe, returning their grins. Things were going to be okay. At some point. But what if Genhaven did call her bluff and fire her because of an avalanche of more trumped-up errors? As it was, she planned to be in the hotel room half the time with her laptop, working her contacts, crossing her fingers for a new job. . . .

Arden gestured toward Molly’s hair. “You think we’re at a cotillion or something? Loosen up, girl. Key word, fun.”

Molly touched the low bun she’d wrapped her hair in before they’d hit the road early to get through most of the desert before the heat really boiled the interstate. Old habits died hard. “It’s cooler with it off my neck. I’m fine.”

“Have it your way.” In the next breath, Arden playfully pounded her fist on the bar. “Where’re my bikers and booze? The Internet said I’d get some of that here, so it must be true!”

Molly laughed. “It’s like you want Hell’s Angels to come rolling in or something. You know that this could be the kind of bar where weekend warriors go, like Matlock and Dr. Shinychompers with big bikes.”

Sofia sighed. “I say we just head to the Strip.”

“After you act as our darling DD,” Arden said. “You should be sober while you poke around town anyway. Bloggers who write about their vacations never write drunk, even if they only do it for fun. I want to get some booze into my girl here, though.” Arden smacked Molly on the back, laughing. “Baby, we are so going to get back your mojo. You are going to work it from this moment on. Got me?”

Molly touched her hair again, almost letting it down. But there was still a niggle getting to her. She couldn’t stop her brain from running overtime, stressing out, making her fold into herself a little.

But Arden, who had a history of getting Molly and Sof to loosen up since college, was right. Molly had done all she could do with putting out job feelers with all her friends and contacts. It was time to heave a big old screw-you to Genhaven, enjoy her “sick days,” and live it up on the Vegas comps and freebies that Arden had somehow collected during her summer off from teaching. She said she’d scoured the computer for deals, and Molly couldn’t say no to that.

Yes, now was the time to temporarily let her hair down, while she didn’t have to worry about getting up early or taking work home or traveling for projects. Her, the girl who felt like . . . well, perhaps the term “an amoeba” would be appropriate. She’d gone on one too many aimless dates and become tired of trying to maintain any kind of intimate liaisons. Work had fulfilled her, so who needed any of that lovey-dovey other stuff when it was so much extra work?

A female bartender finally came from a back room, carrying a crate of glasses. There was something striking about her big baby-blue eyes that clashed with all her rough edges, like the haphazardly cut desert-sand hair, the black T-shirt with its sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, and her throaty voice.

“Sorry about that,” she said with a friendly smile, setting the crate on the other side of the bar. “I usually have someone covering while I do what needs doing round here.”

She was talking as if the saloon was overrun with customers, but Molly only returned her smile. Meanwhile, Sofia used her iPad to take some pictures for her blog. Arden forged ahead, as usual.

“Two whiskies, straight-up shots.” She turned to Molly. “Total Old West, right?”

Sofia got the bartender’s attention. “Can I have a ginger ale, please?”

“How about my own ginger ale concoction?” the lady said. “We used to have the real stuff on tap, but no one orders it anymore.”

“Sounds fine.”

As the bartender went to work, a roar from outside caught everyone’s attention.

Molly exchanged wide-eyed looks with the girls. Motorcycles? Bikers?

“Oh, crap,” Sofia said.

“Awesome,” Arden said.

Molly tugged down the hem of her dress, her heartbeat bobbing. What were she and her friends doing in a place like this again? Like bikers were their kind of crowd.

Arden leaned over and asked the bartender, “Hell’s Angels?”

The woman bit back her smile. “Could be. Usually, they come at night, but you never know with the one-percenters or the other types who patronize these digs on a regular basis.”

Molly had done her share of reading and watching TV when she wasn’t dating. Which pretty much meant always. One-percenters weren’t exactly lawyers or dentists. No, these were guys from motorcycle clubs, the outlaw one percent of bikers who were criminals.

“I’m leaving,” Sofia whispered just as the bartender put her ginger ale in front of her.

Arden snagged her blouse, then glanced at Molly. “You chickening out, too?”

As the engines cut off from outside, Molly felt a trill of rebellion running through her. So many years behind a desk, crunching numbers, lost in them because so they were much more orderly than real life. Years and years with her face in books on a Friday night because she’d given up, preferring the comforts of home and all the TV programs she’d DVRed. Ted Genhaven’s cologne creeping into her as he’d taken away all the control she’d always had over who she allowed to touch her.

Time to say, Screw it . . . for now.

“What the hell,” she said, grabbing the shot glass the bartender had slid to her.

“Atta girl,” Arden said, lifting her drink.

They clinked, throwing the whisky down the hatch, sucking in air, and shaking their heads. Lighter fluid, Molly thought. Damn.

All the while, Arden kept hold of Sofia’s blouse as their friend sat on her stool again, her eyes on the door.

“Want another round?” the bartender asked Arden.

Molly reached into the leather purse she’d slung over her chest and slapped the forty dollars she’d budgeted for some of her food on the bar. They’d been snacking in the car, and the booze would keep her full until the free buffet tonight. “Keep ’em coming.” Lighter fluid, schmighter fluid. Also? Vegas, baby. Ted Genhaven was paying for this one since he hadn’t had the guts to contact her and officially fire her yet. She’d see if he had the man-sack for it.

“Great,” the bartender said. “My name’s Kat, so give me a holler whenever you need anything.”

The door opened, letting in a flare of light. Molly tried to look like she wasn’t looking, but it didn’t help that Arden was staring in flagrant curiosity. Sofia sat ramrod straight, turning her back on the new arrivals.

Molly braced herself for leather jackets that’d been cut off at the shoulders with skulls on the back. Big, hot motorbike muscles. Desperados who’d just gotten off their steel Bon Jovi Dead-or-Alive horses.

But all she saw were six old teddy bear versions of bikers.

Gray-haired, with leather jackets that lacked any kind of motorcycle club patches, shiny buckled boots. One of them even had a long mustache that he’d oiled into handlebars. None of them were exactly shaggy and grizzled.

As the doors closed, Kat the bartender laughed and winked at Molly. The guys took seats at the other end of the bar.

“Motorcycle enthusiasts,” their hostess said.

Well, damn. It wasn’t that Molly wanted one-percenters who ran drugs or anything. But a bit more testosterone would’ve been nice. So much for the start of their wicked Vegas adventure.

However, they were still male, and they were openly checking out the girls as Arden and Molly threw back another shot. And, like all males, they weren’t very good at hiding what was going through their heads as their gazes traveled on down the line: Sofia, cute as a button with her petite figure and big brown eyes. Arden, with her wiry athlete’s body and kiss-my-ass attitude. Then Molly.

Instinctively, she adjusted her sundress, as if it didn’t fit right. It did, but . . . habits. She’d grown up wearing her sister’s dime-store secondhand clothes and she’d never heard the end of it from the kids at school. Being bused in had made her social status even worse, but who needed those clowns when she’d had her books and the library?

She’d also had the uncanny ability to brush off anyone who made her uncomfortable, and pretty soon, that’d become her MO. Now, whenever she didn’t want to deal with someone, she was as cool as a swan ice sculpture—that’s what Sofia had told her once, laughing, saying that she wished she weren’t cute and could be just as regal as Molly.

Yes, the new arrivals sensed the ice, all right, and they chuckled as the bartender went over to them, gripping their hands in welcome, taking their orders.

The newcomers had obviously been the first wave of lunchtime customers, because the doors opened again, letting in a group of very nonbikers dressed in shorts and flip-flops. Maybe they were from a caravan going to Vegas?

Arden sighed as the tourists blocked the view of the old bikers. “I feel like this is the Disney version of the badass West. Sorry, Mol.”

“For what?”

“I wanted this to be exciting.” She lifted a full shot glass. “Drink to excitement with me?”

“Anytime.”

And that’s when she saw him.

He had to have come in behind the gaggle of tourists when she wasn’t looking, because he was sitting at the other end of the bar, near the video poker machines embedded in the wood. Longish light brown hair skimmed his broad, T-shirted shoulders. A fine coating of stubble rode his jaw. But it was his eyes—a piercing green that made her hold her breath for a second—that stopped her from taking in more oxygen.

Was he giving her a look as he settled into his seat? Not just any look, either, but one of those visual caresses over her face, then her chest, her belly, and back up in a slow wave that got her warm, starting on the inside, then coming out in a raging blush over every inch of skin. Unlike most guys, he didn’t dwell on her so much that it made her huddle up. This was . . . a very complete look. And he seemed to be good at doing them.

When he saw her hot flash—and why wouldn’t he when it was like one of those neon beer signs around the room?—he got a canary-eating grin on his face.

It was definitely a moment, and Molly almost smiled back without thinking. But then she heard a female laugh, and her vision expanded, taking in the fact that he was surrounded by three women in hussy-tight black tank tops that emphasized their bodacious ta-tas. Molly had never seen so much eyeliner in her life, either, as the ladies hung on him, having a grand time.

He took a long swig of a beer the bartender must have already brought him, locking gazes with Molly, making her skin burn even more.

Glancing away, she resisted the urge to cross her arms over the bodice of her sundress. The hot stubble guy would’ve already seen that her boobs didn’t exactly make the laced-up décolletage expand to anywhere near the size of those women’s . . . cannonballs. But you know what? Molly had always liked her boobs. They were perky, dammit.

She tried not to glance back at him—the bad-boy type they’d been hoping to find in here. But, the thing was, the hot guy wasn’t wearing any kind of leather cut or jacket—at least right now. What kind of biker was he?

Before Molly could wonder any more about him, she fully turned away. It was one thing to coexist with genuine bad boys in a saloon. It was another to make too much eye contact with one.

Unruffled by any of this, Arden peered at Molly as if she’d fallen into a pool of red paint and hadn’t washed it off. God help her when they went to the Chippendales show.

“The liquor getting to you, Mol?” Arden asked.

It required all the strength Molly had not to see if the guy was still watching her. Instead, she took her filled shot glass in hand. All the while, though, she could feel the skin at her nape sizzling, as if he hadn’t stopped checking her out at all.

Silly. He had his fan club to keep him busy. His hands were full indeed. Even so, her belly flipped at the thought of the look he’d given her.

Cut it out, she thought. Off-limits. Just be casual. Cool. She delicately sniffed at her whisky, pretending that she was unaffected by him. She stopped herself from coughing at the toxic smell, and Arden laughed.

“Whisky, such a romantic drink,” she said too loudly. “A perfect booze for the miners who used to come in here, or even Clark Gable and Carole Lombard when they supposedly stopped in here once during their travels. Awesome, huh?”

“You have strange ideas about romance.”

Arden gave Molly one of her PE teacher looks, like she was going to make her run laps if she continued with the backtalk. Then she held up her glass. “To adventures and new beginnings?”

They toasted each other and drank, torching lungs, making them blow out their breath afterward. Over the music, Sofia’s phone dinged with a text alert, and she accessed it while Arden and Molly exchanged a glance.

Roberto time. The ex-boyfriend. An obsession. Sofia lived to get messages from him, even though they’d separated over two weeks ago. Who knew how she could get so attached to a guy when they’d been dating for only a month, but Sof always fell hard and fast.

“He’s just saying hi,” she said. “What do you think that means?”

“That he’s saying hi,” Arden said.

“You don’t think—”

Molly said, “That he’s actually typing out a cryptic code telling you he wants to get back together? Sorry, Sof, but no.”

Was the biker guy watching them? Was he, huh, huh?

The drinks had really started hitting, happy-ing her up, making her feel very girl-powery. Screw Ted Genhaven. Screw the future!

Screw somebody while the screwing was good?

She wouldn’t look at the biker again. No. Way.

Arden had already summoned Kat the bartender over for another shot. “Here’s to Vegas and losing it! Emphasis on it. Inhibitions. Loosening up, getting sexy. You know.”

Yeah, yeah.

“Molly P. Preston,” she said, leaning on the bar and holding up her still-full glass, “not only are we going to cheer your ass up, you areso going to lose all your hang-ups on this trip, too. Now drink!”

Wow. That’d been loud. “Can you amplify it any more, Ard?”

“I think,” Sofia said from the other side of Arden as she continued texting, “that Arden only means she’d like to see you get laid properly.”

OMG.

Molly listened to see if a burst of laughter sounded from behind her, signaling that the hot biker and his harem had overheard. But she only caught snippets of the women’s voices, chatting about the touristy shirts the bar had on sale, which were hanging to the left of the bottles.

Did that biker ever talk? She’d had her ears tuned in to hear what he’d sound like, but so far . . . no feedback.

Arden had leaned toward Sof. “Hey. Molly’s no virgin, you know.”

Seriously? “Ard, please.”

“Shhh, okay.”

When the bartender checked on them, Molly discreetly shook her head and gestured toward Sofia’s ginger ale. Kat understood that Molly was switching drinks, and she went about her business.

Whispering loudly, Arden said, “You’ve gone out with guys, had online dating service dates, all that. But, Molly . . . you need good sexbad.”

Sofia put a hand over her mouth, sending Molly an apologetic glance. It’s the drinks talking.

But Molly had already been tweaked by what they’d said. True enough, she needed “it.” But the thing was, she wasn’t sure exactly what “it” was for her. Mere sex? A little nightclub dirty dancing on the Strip, some vacation canoodling?

None of it sounded . . . great. There was something missing from the equation. Fun, excitement, orgasms. Damn, Arden and Sof were right—she really needed to get laid properly. She had to be the only thirty-year-old who’d slept with just three men in her lifetime, which was slutty if you were a Jonas brother but sad if you were her.

Truthfully, there’d never been any big love moments for Molly, as in, say, a night like Anna Karenina would’ve had with Count Vronsky, where the sex was enough to make a woman ruin her life. Not that she wanted to ruin her life any more than it was already ruined, but . . . you know. She would’ve liked the chance.

As Molly blithely drank the new glass of ginger ale that Kat had served her, Sofia texted with Roberto. When Kat brought over a big bowl of peanuts, which Molly immediately attacked, the bartender smiled consolingly, as if she’d heard the entire sex conversation. Brilliant.

By now, she’d had enough cojones to turn halfway around, very nonchalantly pretending as if she needed to scope out where the restrooms were. As luck would have it, they were behind the hot biker guy, who was presently engaged with a woman perched on his hip and nibbling on his ear.

Oh, perfect. Why had she looked? And why did she feel a twinge of envy?

Why did she even want his complete attention anyway?

Because he’s disturbingly yum. And extremely off-limits, like Count Vronsky was to Anna Karenina . . .

She realized she very much had to pee. With all the dignity she could muster, she took a breath, then made her way to the restroom, putting all her effort into ignoring the guy she should’ve been ignoring all along as she walked past him and his breast brigade.

See? Not interested.

After doing her business then washing her hands, she looked in the filmy mirror above the sink.

Screw it.

She undid the elastic band that held back her hair until it hung just past her shoulders, and she fluffed it. Icy blond. Hell yeah.

She adjusted the spaghetti straps of her dress, then, at the last moment, pushed up her breasts in their bodice. Let him ignore this. He could look, not touch, because she had too much of a future to blow her present on a guy who didn’t fit into her life at all.

Being looked at like he’d been looking at her sure would go a long way in cheering her up, though.

She opened the door, getting out of the tiny room, determined not to glance at the biker on her way out.

But she did. And as she took in the fact that the boobies weren’t there anymore and that he’d turned around in his chair to face the restroom, she realized that he’d been waiting for her.

He leaned his elbows back on the bar, giving her that slow warm-honey-down-the-body look. Then he grinned.

“So she finally let her hair down,” he said.

3

His voice was part gravel, part velvet, and it felt as if it was smoothing up and over Molly’s skin, abrading her, brushing her in places that hadn’t been brushed in . . .

Was a year too awful to admit to?

She was so rattled by him that all she could manage was to give him that I-see-you-but-I’m-not-acknowledging-it look that she’d given the older bikers earlier. Habit. A survival mechanism, because there was no good reason this guy should be talking to her, grinning at her, nodding his chin to the shot of whisky on the bar that he’d obviously ordered.

Cool.

No, yikes.

Both reactions blasted through her at the same time, and she wasn’t sure if she was actually cooling or yikesing right now. Thanks to her whisky buzz, she stood there deciding.

That only seemed to encourage him. “I noticed you like this stuff, so I took the liberty.”

“I’ve probably had enough,” she said. “But thank you.”

Why wasn’t she moving along?

“You haven’t had the top-shelf brand,” he said.

She had no idea what she’d been drinking, but she shouldn’t be having any part of this so-called improvement.

“That’s really very nice of you,” she said. Still standing there. Feet . . . help?

“It’s obvious,” he said, “that you’re not much of a whisky person. Even with your back turned, I could tell you were making faces while you were drinking it, like Jane Austen trying out spiked tea.” He paused. “Or whatever her name was.”

Now she really couldn’t move. Her nethers were too busy getting all warm and tingly again.

Had he just made a reference to the Austen? Guys like him weren’t supposed to throw names like that around, even if he’d tried to backtrack.

He lightly kicked at the stool next to him with his weathered biker boot, pushing the seat away from the bar in an invitation to sit.

The whisky had hit her enough by now that sitting down and having another one with this total and inappropriate stranger seemed like a not-so-bad idea. She was on vacation, right? When would she ever see him again? Never.

Sounded wonderful to her.

But she’d always believed that when a guy bought you a drink, he was expecting something in return. Drinks are investments—especially if it’s a top-shelf whisky.

Nonetheless, she glanced over at Arden, who’d gotten into an animated conversation with the tourists in the middle of the bar, as well as the old bikers, who’d crept over to them from the end. Somehow, that had happened. Molly even thought she heard the handlebar-mustache guy mention bluefin tuna and how it’s fished and processed. What? She didn’t know what kind of surreal dimension this saloon inhabited, but it was clear that Arden wasn’t available to pull her away from trouble down here. Same with ginger ale–drinkin’ Sofia, who’d relocated to one of the tables and was locked into her phone, texting again while her iPad lay beside her, forgotten and forlorn.

When Molly looked back at the biker guy, it was like there was a bad-boy magnet inside of her, pulling her toward him and those tempting wide shoulders under that white T-shirt. He had a loose way about him as he lounged there, elbows still braced behind him on the bar.

Should she really offend him by brushing him off? Would he cut her if she did? Was that what bikers did to their bitches when they displeased them?

He raised an eyebrow, jerked his chin at the stool as he turned around in his seat, reaching into his back jeans pocket to pull out a lighter for the pack of cigarettes in front of him on the bar.

She found herself wandering toward the stool, but she didn’t sit down. It was a miracle that her hand didn’t shake as much as the lining of her belly was trembling while she reached for the shot glass.

Like a stupendous tool, she sniffed at the whisky.

He laughed, low and rough, as he plucked a cigarette from his pack. “Just drink it.”

Why not? She took a sip, anticipating that lighter fluid taste she’d gagged down earlier. But this experience was so different. This was smooth, and she drank a bit more.

“Tullamore Dew Single Malt,” he said. “The kind you were drinking before wasn’t any better than rotgut. This is aged ten years.”

It sounded expensive, and she had no idea how a biker could afford to be buying it for her. She didn’t want to ask. Maybe he’d just come off a successful drug run or . . .

Shut up, Molly.

“So you’re a connoisseur,” she said instead, thinking she had to at least be nice for ten minutes before she evacuated. As she should.

“Every once in a while I give in to things that seem out of my league.”

The way he said it made her shift on her feet. It made her realize that she was wearing strappy sandals and new red nail polish in a shade that said, Possible slut alert, if enough whisky is applied. She hoped he didn’t see the goose bumps that’d prickled along her arms.

He took up his lighter, and even though she was trying not to look too much at him, she did take a second to notice that there was an image of Bettie Page on the casing. With her lowered gaze, sassy long Cleopatra ’do, and barely there fifties drag-race-queen attire, she looked like she would’ve been right at home on his lap earlier.

Molly finished up the whisky, nudging the glass away from her. She had an even stronger buzz going, so it might be a good time for a walk outside around the tiny town, ovenlike heat or not.

“Thanks again,” she said. “But I know this seat belongs to someone else, so I’ll leave it for her.” She crinkled her brow. “Or them.”

“They had to run.” He hadn’t lit up the cigarette yet, merely hunching over the bar, giving Molly that damned grin.

“Just like that, they’re gone?” Nice syntax, Yoda.

“They had to get ready for work.”

Doing what? Something that involved poles and horny businessmen? Yeah, Molly had seen Showgirls, so she knew all about that stuff.

He laughed a little, as if he knew what she was thinking. It was unnerving that he could read her like that. Kind of hot, too. Real hot.

He said, “My friends have shifts at the Silver Hills, that casino near the highway exit.”

“I remember seeing it.” She wasn’t sure they had strippers there because it was a casino where a lot of tourist buses seemed to stop. His “friends” were probably waitresses or blackjack dealers, and she felt like a terrible person for assuming otherwise. “Do you work there, too?”

Now that she’d shown a flicker of interest in him, his grin widened. He scanned her with that piercing gaze again, and she thought of how the color of his eyes was like limes that you could pair with the whisky.

Bad Molly. “Never mind,” she said.

“No, I don’t work there.” He shrugged. “I’ve got a job that’s a little less . . . structured.”

Biker. Easy rider.

At that moment, one of the old Fonzies from the end of the bar walked by them on his way to the restroom, and her . . . whatever he was . . . jerked his chin at him in greeting. It was sexier than anything. Why’d he have to be like that?

The old biker winked at Molly before he went into the men’s room.

Her hot biker laughed. “Don’t worry. Dustin doesn’t mean anything by it.”

“What?” She would simply pretend she hadn’t seen that insinuating wink. This place was full of them. First the bartender, now Fonzie . . .

Mr. Hotness narrowed his gaze at Molly and leaned closer. The smell of leather crept into her nose, tickling, nearly making her shiver with pent-up delight.

“The guy knows you’re just having a drink with me, that’s all,” he said.

Was he implying that she might’ve minced over here for more than a drink? “A drink’s all I have time for.”

He gave Molly a squinting sidelong look, then eased the cigarette into the corner of his mouth, talking around it. “Of course your time’s limited. You’re a tourist, like one of them.” He gestured with his lighter toward the button-down crowd that Arden was a part of. “Those types come in here all the time, just to take a look around at the local color and to say they’ve been in a biker bar. Which this really isn’t during the day.”

Was he teasing, calling them yuppie thrill seekers? Huh.

He kept on. “I don’t know if you’re coming into or going from Vegas, but my best guess is you’re coming.”

The last part sent a rogue zing through her. He had to be toying with her. His grin confirmed it.

At any rate, she wasn’t drunk enough yet to give him any details about where she was going or . . . good God . . . coming. “You’ve got a fifty-percent chance of being right either way. Those are pretty good odds in this area.”

He chuckled, finally lighting his cigarette, then sucked on the death stick until it glowed at the end. He exhaled, putting down the lighter. Bettie Page stared up at Molly from her plastic position, giving her a saucy grin that said, You’re hotter than lava under all that reserve, doll. Keep goin’.

Yeah, she was doing pretty well here. Vegas, baby!

The biker interrupted Bettie’s mentoring. “Want me to tell you exactly what someone like you’ll do when you get into town?”

Bait? Taken. She stayed even longer.

He said, “First off, you’ll check in, then get an overpriced cocktail. Then you’ll plan every hour you’ll be on the Strip down to the last detail—dinner at eight at the Rio Seafood Buffet, because some web page told you it was good. Then a show that the concierge recommended. Before bed, there’ll be some gambling at a ten-dollar blackjack table if you can find one, and you just might since it’s during the week, but you’ll want to go to a casino that’s a lot seedier than the one you’re probably staying at, if I can judge anything by that shiny hybrid that was parked outside when I got here.”

It was as if he were undoing the strings of a corset one by one, and it was the only thing Molly was wearing.

He motioned toward the group of tourists with his burning cigarette. He held it between his index finger and his thumb, as if he were more used to smoking marijuana than a boring old ciggie. “There’re a bunch more clone wagons here now, but that’s how it is in the Rough and Tumble during the day. You people generally don’t come in here at night.”

“Clone wagons?” she asked.

He was amused all over again. “What else would you call them?”

“You realize that you just said my friends and I are clones.”

He shrugged, then took a drag off his cigarette, narrowing his eyes, daring Molly to challenge him.

Was he dicking around with the tourist? Was this how he and the regulars at the bar entertained themselves?

Dustin, the older biker, came out of the restroom. This time, on the way by, he said, “The girls go to work?”

“They had to move on sometime.” A plume of smoke curled out the side of O’Hottie’s mouth as he flicked his cigarette toward a nearby ashtray.

Molly waved her hand in front of her face to chase away the smoke . . . and also to see if the gesture rankled him. It did not. Belatedly, she realized that if his smoking bothered her so much, she could’ve used that as an excuse to leave.

Didn’t happen.

Dustin patted biker guy on the back. “If I were a few decades younger, I’d be bringing the three girls I’d just shtupped to the bar for a farewell drink, too.”

Um . . . ? Hello?

Molly didn’t quite do a double take at the biker, but he was watching her with that . . . well, the kind of grin he was wearing had nothing to do with eating canaries anymore, and more to do with the pussies that chased them.

“You’re the shit, Cash,” Dustin said as he left.

“Right, man.”

So his name was Cash. And why not? He looked like a Cash, if only because of his man-in-black attitude and nothing else. Cashes were free-spirited, careless in just about everything they did, including smoking a cigarette as if every moment were an afterglow. Cashes had foursomes—not just threesomes, dear God—and messed with the brains of nice-girl tourists who meandered into the local bar.

The whisky had really hit by now and, out of the blue, Molly started to laugh, turning her face away so he wouldn’t see. Good try, because she could feel him looking at her. When she peeked up at him, he was softly laughing, too.

“Dustin’s going to go home and put up a shrine to you,” she said, in spite of all her reservations about being here. The day had become too strange not to love.

“Dustin’s had his own shtups over the years. I should be worshipping him.” He glanced at the old bikers, who were buying the tourists cheap beers now. “They’re harmless, those boys. Retired Strip workers who love their rides, and ride just for fun. You can see some of their bikes out front. Before dark, they’ll go home to the wives and leave this place to the heavy hitters.”

“Are you talking about motorcycle club guys?”

“There’ll be some of those.” He nodded at Kat as the bartender glanced at him and smiled, almost secretively. “And then there’re some who get into trouble without the benefit of an MC.”

Molly wasn’t sure what he meant by that. Also, she was still way back on the part about the older guys. From what Cash said, she assumed that they weren’t part of an MC—a motorcycle club.

She wanted to ask if he rode a Harley for fun . . . or rode something else. She wanted to know if he was the type who usually came in here when it got dark.

But there were bigger questions burning at Molly, like, was he really this friendly? More important, had he heard everything Arden and Sofia had spilled earlier about “losing it” and “inhibitions”? If he had, Molly was just waiting for the real teasing to start.

It was definitely time to go now, while she was still having fun and hadn’t gotten into any trouble.

Then he fully turned to her again, and the motion made her look at his arm. He had that thing going on where his triceps muscle was so cut that it gave his arm a great deal of heart-jarring definition. It was a basic turn-on, and the whisky certainly wasn’t helping.

“How about another shot?” he asked softly.

Words, stuck in throat. Libido, buzzing like a chainsaw cutting her down the middle. Stay? Go? Give in? Give out . . . ?

He answered before she could. “Just have one more. Live a little . . .”

He was waiting for Molly to tell him her name, wasn’t he?

 

Rough and Tumble

Rough and Tumble