Lacey Daniels wants a normal life where she can go to dinner or the mall without constantly looking over her shoulder. Unfortunately, her abusive father is out of prison and more dangerous than ever. The Hawthorne Guardians, a local motorcycle club that protected her as a child, is her only hope for normalcy. Some of the faces have changed, but the credo is the same: protect the innocent. One Guardian, Ratchet, takes an interest in more than her safety. He wants her heart.
Despite her growing feelings for Ratchet, Lacey can’t escape the threat her father poses. With him free and seeking revenge, she will never be safe. Her only chance for a normal life — and maybe true love — lies with Ratchet, a man who is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her father from hurting her again… even if it means risking his life to save her.
I desperately needed to rest, but stopping even a short time was dangerous. An approaching car didn’t give me a choice. I leaned against a utility pole at the corner, my entire body hurting, and stared at the collection of motorcycles parked outside a bar a little farther down the street. Men wearing black leather vests stood around talking to each other and the few women scattered throughout the group. None of them looked familiar, but I had to hope the patches on their vests did. I needed to find the Hawthorne Guardians. I couldn’t trust anyone else, not even my own mother. She’d become part of the problem.
Tears blurred my vision, but I blinked them away as I forced myself to walk toward the bikers. Crying was a luxury I couldn’t afford at the moment. One man turned his back toward me, and I spotted the familiar stylized HG with a sword in the middle I was searching for. Maybe he could tell me where to find Bear.
Before I reached him, he hopped on a motorcycle and rode away with two others. My heart sank, but I couldn’t give up. I had to find someone who could put me in contact with Bear. I continued on to the bar and hoped for the presence of more Hawthorne Guardians.
I staggered into the dimly lit bar and paused long enough to steady myself. Staying upright was a challenge when it felt as if a spear lanced my skull. Too many people packed the place, and not enough wore the familiar patch. In fact, I couldn’t spot a single Guardian in the crowd. My anxiety shot through the roof, but I shoved it aside. I could deal with it later, after I was safe. If I was ever safe again.
Skipping the patrons, I went straight to the bartender.“Hey.” The word came out barely above a whisper. I cleared my throat and tried to raise my voice enough to be heard over the din of conversation and music. “Hey!”
The bartender, a muscular guy with tattoos and no hair, stopped in front of me. He ran his gaze over me and shook his head. “You look like you’ve had a few too many already, darlin’.”
Trust him to confuse pain with drunkenness. “I don’t want a drink. I’m looking for Bear. Have you seen him?”
“Sorry. Don’t know that name.”
My slim hope of help slipped further from my grasp. “Do you know where the Hawthorne Guardians’ headquarters or hangout or whatever they call it is?”
“Their clubhouse? It’s straight up this road, about two miles out.” The bartender studied me. “What do you want with them? You don’t seem like their type.”
“Thank you.” I walked away, almost running into a big guy who appeared in my path. I sidestepped and cradled my left arm to my chest, thankful he hadn’t bumped it. Dodging him was painful enough.
Outside, I drew in a deep breath of the cool night air and winced. Big mistake when I wasn’t sure if my ribs were broken. I started the long trek out of town and hoped like crazy I could make it to the clubhouse before I collapsed. Someone there would know Bear. They had to. I didn’t have anywhere else to turn.
Long before I reached the clubhouse, my steps faltered and the world spun. I wasn’t sure if I was walking in the right direction. At last, I spotted a solid fence with a big gate in it. That had to be the place. I couldn’t go any farther.
As I leaned beside the gate, trying to figure out how to get inside to the building that resembled an old airplane hangar, the rumble of motorcycle engines filled the air. Looking back the way I’d come, I watched lights approach in the darkness as the roargrew louder. The motorcycles slowed and stopped, their headlights all aimed at me.
“Who are you?” a gruff male voice called.
“Lacey.” I pushed away from the fence and struggled to stay vertical as I approached the motorcycles. With the lights blinding me, I couldn’t tell if these guys were part of the motorcycle club I was looking for, but how many clubs could have a property in this specific location? “I’m looking for Bear.”
“You’re looking for who?” The rider who spoke climbed off his motorcycle.
“Bear.” I stumbled toward him, pain and exhaustion causing darkness at the edge of my vision. “He’s a Hawthorne Guardian...or was, anyway. I need to see Bear. He knows me.”
The rider walked forward and barely caught me as my legs gave out. “Whoa there, sweetheart. Let’s get you inside, and then we can talk about Bear.”
He knows Bear.
The thought brought relief, even as he lifted me into his arms. He called for someone to open the gate, and then my vision swam and faded into oblivion.
* * * *
The sensation of lying on something soft infiltrated my subconscious, bringing me to awareness. Male voices spoke around me, and panic hit. Where was I?
“Easy, now, sweetheart. You’re safe here.”
Safe. The word brought so much comfort, yet so much confusion. That didn’t sound like Bear’s voice, but who else would promise me safety?
I fought to open my eyes and found two scruffy men in their twenties staring at me in a moving room. No, that wasn’t right. It was two of the same scruffy man. I blinked a few times, clearing my vision. Only one man stared at me, but the room still swayed.
“You’re not Bear.” My voice was almost too soft to count as a whisper.
“No, I’m Ratchet. Bear’s on his way.” He smoothed hair away from my eyes with a gentle touch. “Now, who are you?”
Ratchet looked at the men gathered behind him, but they all shrugged. Of course they would. None of them looked familiar. Then again, I didn’t remember anyone other than Bear, although I knew there had been other riders all those years ago.
Ratchet returned his gaze to me. “None of us know you. What do you want with Bear?”
“He told me I could come.” Tears filled my eyes, making the world even more wavery. “He said he would protect me.”
The men all tensed, and Ratchet placed a fingertip against my cheek in a feather-light touch. I winced at the sharp pain, not surprised to learn I had a bruise there. I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover my entire body was one big bruise.
“You need someone to protect you from whoever did this?”
I started to nod, but the intense pain in my skull made me change my mind. “Yes. I hurt so bad.”
“What happened to you?”
“He came home and beat me.” I closed my eyes, trying hard not to remember even as I spoke. “He wasn’t ever supposed to come home, but he did. Now I hurt.”
“All right, Lacey,” Ratchet said, his deep voice soothing. “We’ll keep you safe until Bear gets here. No one will hurt you here.”
“Thank you. You’re as nice as they were.” Fond memories of the bikers who had protected me so long ago rushed to the forefront. They had made me feel so safe.
“You’re welcome. Now, why don’t you rest? I’ll let you know as soon as Bear shows up.”
“Okay.” I closed my eyes again and drifted off.
* * * *
“I don’t know, man. She was staggering around at the gate like she’s drunk, but I don’t smell any alcohol on her. Someone beat her up pretty badly, and she says you promised to protect her.”
“Let me see her.” Bear’s familiar voice filled my heart with peace.
I struggled to open my eyes again as the thunk of heavy boots approached. “Bear.”
The big man had frightened me the first time I’d seen him. Over six feet tall, hairy, tattooed, and dressed all in black, he had intimidated me to the point of tears by his appearance alone. But then he’d knelt to my level, spoken in the kindest voice I’d ever heard, and given me a pink teddy bear. His bushy beard and long hair were a little grayer now, but he would still be an imposing figure to anyone who didn’t know him like I did.
“Lacey, honey, what happened to you?” he asked, his voice almost as sad as his eyes as he looked over me.
“My dad got out of prison and came home. He blamed me for getting locked up and punished me.” This time, I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. “My mom let him back in. She promised she never would, and then she did!”
“Ah, sweetie, I’m so sorry.” He knelt and brushed the tears from my face the same way he had when I was a child. “You did the right thing by coming here.”
“What am I going to do?”
“We’ll figure it out together, but I promise you will be safe. We’ll keep your dad far away from you. He will never touch you again. You hear me?”
“Yeah.” I took a shuddering breath and winced. “Ow.”
Bear’s bushy eyebrows drew together. “Ratchet told me you’re in pain. What hurts other than that bruise on your face?”
“Everything. My ribs, my head, my back, my arm.” The rest of me hurt too, but not nearly as much. I doubted mentioning the aches I could ignore would help anyone.
Bear looked over his shoulder. “Doc! Get your sorry carcass over here!”
A bearded man in his thirties approached. “What do you need?”
“See if we need to take her to the ER. She’s been thoroughly beaten.” Bear smoothed my hair. “You can trust Doc. He’s a good guy and knows what he’s doing.”
He moved away and the younger man took his place. After shining a light in my eyes and checking a few more things, most of which caused serious pain, he glanced at Bear. “Definitely need an ER trip. She has a concussion and probably a broken arm. Not sure about her ribs, but they might be cracked.”
“All right. You’re coming with us. You’re better at talking to doctors.” Bear looked at the concerned men around them. “Ratchet, Sparky, you’re going too. Be prepared for anything. The man who did this to her is a mean sucker, and he’s had ten years in the slammer to work up his hatred.”
The same sense of security Bear had given me as a child washed over me once more in a comforting wave. These bikers might look scary, but they were good men who would keep me safe.
Bear carried me out to an old pickup truck as three motorcycles started in the parking lot. I laid my head on his shoulder, breathing in the familiar scents of leather and peppermint that had become a source of comfort for me when I was younger. Despite the years that had passed since I last saw Bear, he was still the same man I remembered.
He set me in the passenger seat and put the seat belt around me. Once he climbed behind the wheel, he started the engine and glanced at me. “You okay?”
“As close as I can be.” I stared out the window as the motorcycles drove past us toward the gate. “Thank you for helping me.”
“No need to thank me. I’m just doing what any decent man should do.” He followed the motorcycles out onto the road. “Now, I hate that I have to ask this, but after I get you to the hospital, do I need to go rescue your mom?”
“No.” Hurt rolled in with the memories of a few hours ago. “She was glad to see my dad. Smiling, hugging him, kissing him. When he came after me, she seemed as angry with me as he was.”
“All right.” His hands tightened on the steering wheel, but he didn’t say any more.
At the hospital, he left me with Doc, saying he had to make a call. Ratchet and Sparky loitered nearby, their gazes constantly scanning the other people and the doors. Knowing they were all looking out for me enabled me to focus on answering the nurse’s questions during the check-in process. Everyone seemed a little nervous when they saw the patch-covered black leather vests my escorts wore, but that was fine with me. If no one was willing to mess with them, then no one would try to get past them to mess with me.
Soon after a nurse took me to a curtained cubicle in the back and helped me change into a thin gown, Bear joined me. “Lacey, a friend of mine is coming to talk to you about what happened. He’s a police officer, but he’s one I trust. You can trust him too, so be completely honest with him.”
“He’ll believe me? He won’t think I’m lying?” The old fears of the police sprang to life. I’d run into too many who hadn’t believed my dad could be abusive. After all, he was a wealthy businessman with a beautiful home and a loving wife. No one wanted to believe someone like that would beat his kid. It wasn’t until I landed in the hospital with a broken arm and a concussion that they had taken me seriously instead of thinking I was a spoiled brat who was mad at her father.
“He’ll believe you.” Bear laid his hand on my shoulder. “He’s a good guy, and he knows how depraved some people can be despite outward appearances.”
Doc cleared his throat. “I assume you told the hospital he’s coming.”
“Yeah. I got to them right before they called the police themselves.” Bear smiled at me. “I don’t trust cops any more than you do, but Chuck’s okay.”
Doc tagged along when I went to get x-rayed. I doubted my father would try to get to me in a hospital, but the biker’s presence kept me calm. I knew Doc would protect me.
When we returned to my little curtained cubicle, a man in a suit waited with Bear. As soon as the orderly left, Bear stepped to my side. “Lacey, honey, this is Chuck Foster. He’s a detective here in Hawthorne Rock.”
“Hi, Lacey.” Chuck’s friendly smile appeared sincere, and with Bear vouching for him, I had to take a risk and trust him. “Bear’s already told me about your past, so you don’t need to worry about that. You just tell me what landed you in here tonight, okay?”
I nodded and hoped I had the courage to say everything without breaking down. “My dad got out of prison and came straight to our house. I live with my mom...well, I did. I’m not going back there now.”
“What happened when your dad showed up?” Chuck asked, making a note on a little pad.
“My mom let him in. She promised me she would never let him back into our lives, but then she welcomed him with open arms. Literally.” The thought of it made me feel sick. Or maybe that was the concussion. Either way, it wasn’t pleasant. “They were all lovey-dovey until he saw me standing there. He started yelling about me trying to ruin his life and how it was all my fault he’d been locked up.”
I shuddered and grimaced. Having injured ribs was going to drive me nuts. Bear stepped to my other side and took my uninjured hand.
“It’s all right, honey. We’re not going to let him near you, remember?”
“I know. It’s just...I didn’t think I’d ever have to go through this again, you know?” I blinked back the threatening tears and took as deep a breath as I dared. “My mom supported his anger and moved out of the way so he’d have a clear path to me. She looked like she hated me as much as he does.”
“What happened once he had a clear path to you?” Chuck asked, his tone gentle.
“He came after me. I tried to run, but he tackled me and started beating me.” I closed my eyes, trying to remember exactly what had happened, but it was all so chaotic. “He hit my head against the floor and threw me into the wall. I think I might have taken out a table at some point when I crashed into it, but I’m not sure. Eventually, I managed to escape and run out the front door. He yelled at me, but he didn’t follow.”
“How did you end up at the Hawthorne Guardians’ clubhouse?”
“I went to some bar with a lot of motorcycles in front of it and asked for Bear. The bartender had no idea who he was, but he gave me directions to the clubhouse.” I looked at Chuck, desperate to see something other than the memories of what had sent me in search of Bear. “I walked there. I don’t know how I made it. I didn’t think I would, but I did and they took me inside.”
Chuck asked me a few more questions and then excused himself. Doc looked like he was ready to explode as he turned to Bear.“Hey, man, I need a smoke. You okay with me going outside for a few?”
“Keep your eyes open while you’re out there and send one of the others to take your place back here.”
“You got it.”
I listened to the clunk of his boots fade, and insecurity threatened to drown me. “Is he mad at me?”
“No, honey. He’s mad at your parents, your dad especially. Doc has no patience for anyone who abuses kids or women.”
“Good to know.”
Booted footsteps approached, and Ratchet stepped through the curtain. “Doc sent me back.”