The Pine Cabins of Rathdrum, Idaho had likely been cozy, clean and restful back in the day.
Now they were just sad and sorry.
Set back from a narrow, paved road that wove through the North Idaho forest, the row of small, white cabins sat in the shade of tall evergreens. Even with the March sun reflecting off the late-winter snow piled under the trees, along the driveway and narrow parking lot, they were shrouded in gloom.
Manda could picture them back in their heyday. Summertime, with a vintage auto drawn up before each cabin, and people strolling along the path, to the creek at the base of the mountain.
The shade of these majestic trees would be cool in the heat of summer, fragrant with pine and fresh air.
Laughter would ring as kids ran and adults played horse-shoes or a game of pickup baseball. Deer would peer from the trees, while chipmunks darted out from beneath bushes, looking for treats.
Back then, the wooden sign that read Pine Cabins—A Fun Family Motor Lodge would have been accurate.
Fifty years later, the sign leaned crookedly on the snowbank behind it, the posts nearly rotted away.
The place itself was in similar shape.
And no matter the owner’s big talk about how he planned to fix up the cabins and turn the place back into a desirable stop for tourists, Manda was pretty sure no repairs or cleanup of the grounds had been done in years.
Her cabin, next to the small office, smelled of mildew and other things she’d rather not think about. It was none too warm, either. The battered baseboard heater clanked loudly but gave almost no heat.
This morning, she’d put on Tim’s Seahawks hoodie over her bra, a cami, two tee-shirts and her jeans, with wool socks and her worn Uggs. She was still shivering.
Which was why she now sat in the office. In here, a space heater blasted warmth from its red coils. And Tim’s buddy Rezan, the owner, was at least company. Although his bold stare sort of made her want to go and hide in the bathroom.
Or maybe that was all the coffee she was drinking.
She clutched the paper cup she’d refilled from the cheap coffeemaker hissing on a corner table. The office smelled of stale, over-heated coffee. But it was hot and it was free, so she’d drink it. Just as she’d put up with Tim’s buddy.
Rezan Faro lounged behind the desk across from her chair, smiling at her in a way that a lot of girls had probably told him was sexy.
He was no taller than she, his wiry body attired in black-and-red sportswear, a heavy gold chain at his throat, and an equally gaudy ring on each hand. His black hair was cut short on the sides, the top gelled back slickly. His skin was the muted mocha of mixed heritage.
His dark eyes were almost too pretty for a man’s face. Unfortunately, they held a gleam made her stomach tighten even more.
“So, Manda,” he said, his voice light and smooth. “You must be gettin’ pretty bored sitting on your ass around here all day.” His smirk widened, his gaze traveling down her body and back up. “Not that it ain’t a gorgeous ass.”
She smiled, but her hands tightened on her cup. “I’m fine, thanks. Just… I thought Tim would be back by now.”
The Tri-Cities wasn’t that far away—her boyfriend had gone to pick up some ‘stuff’ for Rezan, as thanks for letting them stay here. But instead of being back the next day as he’d promised, Tim had now been gone two full days.
She was getting worried. Okay, she was flat-out scared.
She was stuck here without Tim, and without money, because he’d ‘borrowed’ the last of hers to buy gas and cigarettes on their way up here, assuring her they’d make it back in no time working for his buddy at his little resort. Tim would do maintenance while she worked the front desk. Why, she could even work her way up to manager if she just used her pretty smile. It had been easier to believe this than to argue with him.
She also had no car, because her little Camry had broken down in the Tri-Cities, and they’d left it at their old apartment. Tim assured her the super there would be glad to have it instead of the month’s rent they owed.
Again, she’d chosen to believe him. But its loss meant she couldn’t look for a job, because even to waitress or run a cash register at a convenience store she needed a way to get there. The Pine Cabins were a couple of miles out of the nearest small town, Rathdrum.
And the ‘resort’ had turned out to be this dump, with no visitors except her and Tim, and they weren’t exactly paying guests. In other words, there was nothing to manage.
She didn’t even have a phone, because it was in Tim’s car, where it had been charging.
Rezan shrugged, and leaned way back in his chair. “Yeah, I thought Timmy’d be back by now too. Sure hope he ain’t run out on me… and on you too.” He smiled ruefully, in a way that said Tim had inconvenienced them both.
Her stomach knotted tighter. “He—he wouldn’t do that,” she said. “Not to me.”
Only she didn’t sound very convincing, even to herself. Because the sad truth was, she had slowly come to realize, even if she didn’t want to admit it to herself, Tim was what her mom would call ‘all show and no go’. He was like a big kid in many ways. When he was excited about something or someone, he was all in. Then, when he grew tired of it, he was done.
She’d thought he was still into her, he’d assured her he was their first night here, when he was loving up on her.
But he’d been getting impatient with her lately. Criticizing her, interrupting her, telling her not to worry about every little thing. Was he done with her too? Did he even intend to come back here, or had he skipped out on her? She of all people knew men did that.
Her best friend Chloe had never liked Tim, even when things were going well between him and Manda. What she’d say about him leaving Manda here with no money, no car, and no phone, Manda could only imagine.
No, that wasn’t true. Manda knew very well what Chloe would say—that Tim was a loser, best viewed from Manda’s rearview mirror as she drove away. The knowledge had been building in the back of Manda’s mind that if Tim didn’t change, and soon, she was going to have to leave him.
Chloe kept telling her that she was stronger than she realized, and she’d be just fine alone.
Manda just had trouble believing this. So maybe she hung on a little harder and a little longer to guys than she should, but the alternative was being alone. All the years of Manda’s growing up, Arliss Kowitsky made their husband-and-father-less state seem bitter and forlorn.
And who in her right mind wanted to be those things? Not Manda. And, being honest, she hadn’t quite outgrown the habit of doing the opposite of whatever her mother nagged her to do.
Rezan’s chair groaned as he leaned forward, his gaze warm and concerned. “Hey,” he said soothingly. “Hey, gorgeous. Didn’t mean to get you all shook up. Don’t be worrying about Timmy. He’ll be—”
A loud rap song erupted, cutting off his voice. He palmed his phone, flashy black with zirconium-studded initials, and put it to his ear. “Yeah?”
He listened for a moment, and his face tightened. His gaze jerked to Manda, and then away, long lashes veiling his eyes. “Yeah, o’ course she’s here. But you listen to me. You get your ass back here and tell her yourself.” His voice grew louder, almost shrill. “I ain’t gonna do your dirty work for you. No— no… Tim! Don’t you hang up on me!”
He waited a second, then slammed the phone onto the papers on his desk, scowling. “Fuck! Fuck this shit.”
Manda stared at him, ice trickling through her despite the warmth of the office, and the coffee in her hand. “What?” she asked, her voice thin. “What’s wrong with Tim?”
Rezan sighed heavily, and rose, his chair slamming against the wall behind him. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with him. He’s a spineless little piss-ant, that’s what.”
The room went quiet, the only sound the hum of the heater and the drip of melting snow off the eaves outside the front window. Manda set her coffee carefully on the grimy, old brochure rack beside her chair. “He’s not coming back, is he?”
Rezan tipped his head down and shook it. A long lock of gleaming hair fell free, swaying over his forehead. He reached up and swiped it back in line with the rest. “No. He ain’t.”
Manda bolted out of her chair, fumbled for the door knob, and yanked the door open. She banged her shoulder painfully on the door jamb as she scrambled through it, but she ignored the pain, intent only on getting outside. She gulped a deep breath of fresh, chilly air, her stomach rolling.
She didn’t lose her breakfast, but it was a near thing. After a few more long breaths, she hugged her arms around herself. Her heart thundered in her chest, the hot ache of tears building behind her eyes as she stared blankly at the snow and trees surrounding her.
Not because she’d honestly miss Tim all that much, but because, what was she gonna do?
Oh, God, her mama—and Chloe—were right. Manda should’ve kept her head down, working and saving her money and ignoring Tim when he swept like a charming whirlwind into her life. Because she clearly wasn’t any better at picking men than her mother had been.
Her mother had given up on romance after Manda’s father left them.
Manda kept trying to prove her mother wrong, and find a good man, and this was her comeuppance.
T-Bear Turner was a lucky man, and he knew it.
Here he was, doing what he was good at, working on the insides of autos at JJ’s Auto in Airway Heights, Washington, and doing it alongside one of his best friends.
Def Leppard blasted from the boombox on the workbench, loud the way they liked it. Their boss was home sick instead of in his cramped office with the door open to keep eyes and ears on them and his business.
Not that he needed to supervise, ’cause even when he wasn’t around, both T-Bear and Moke were hard workers. They’d been doing this job enough years that they were fast and accurate, and trained in the new computerized systems. The rep of JJ’s now rested squarely on their shoulders, and it was safe there.
JJ Washington was generally a great guy to work for and with, sharp, funny and patient. But lately he’d been grouchy as shit, clutching his grizzled head and complaining about the clang of every dropped wrench and rev of a motor.
T himself was never under the weather, but he’d done his best to sympathize with the old guy, and to cheer him up. JJ didn’t seem to appreciate his efforts.
But what the hell, in a little while, the work day would be over. Another solid eight-plus hours of making the drivers of Airway Heights, Washington a happy bunch of folks. Sometimes a repair ran over time, and then whichever of them was already finished for the day chipped in to get ‘er done.
After their last customers drove away, and they locked up for the night, they’d straddle their Harleys and head on over to the other place they belonged.
The club house of the Devils Flyers MC, Airway Heights chapter.
The compound had been a thriving carpet-and-flooring warehouse and sales room back in the eighties. But when the Heights turned out to be too small to support the business, it folded.
Ivan ‘Stick’ Vanko bought it for rock-bottom price, and the surrounding acreage with it. He and the brothers had done some remodeling. The warehouse had been turned into storage, garages, and a place for the brothers to work on their motorcycles or pump some iron if they were so inclined.
T loved the place. He was patched-in, a brother in every way except blood with the twenty-odd other men. He and Moke were the only ones living there full time right now. Both single, neither of them saw the need to maintain their own house or apartment when the club house had showers, a kitchen and access to all the beer, booze and weed they wanted.
Being honest, T wasn’t much on housework and shit, either. He tried to do his part around the club house—at least when he was reminded. Cheezus, he did not get why the old ladies made such a fuss about a few dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and that kinda shit. The kitchen table was a great size for laying out motorcycle parts and cleaning them. Plus, in the winter the kitchen was nice and warm, unlike the garage, and if there was food, it was gonna be there.
Sara, their chapter’s president’s old lady, was a great gal, but she could be a real bitch when she was pissed off. And for some reason she didn’t think it was funny when he’d offered to go get takeout for the latest family barbecue, so she and the other old ladies didn’t have to worry whether the kitchen was clean or not.
The other bikers present had busted up laughing, except Rocker and Brews. Those two hadn’t moved a muscle—both of ’em had turned into regular ‘yes men’ now that they had their own old ladies.
Course if T-Bear had a pretty woman with serious curves givin’ it to him regular, he might at least try to straighten up a little. But, he didn’t have one, and his prospects were not lookin’ good.
The Flyers had a cleaning crew on retainer, but Juanita and her daughters had missed their last weekly foray through the clubhouse, when they traveled to the Tri-cities for a family funeral. T-Bear missed them a lot—for a twenty, they’d do a brother’s laundry and bring it back all clean, even folded and shit.
He was gonna have to swing by the local laundromat tonight, or he’d have no coverall to wear to work tomorrow. He could no longer stand his own smell, and the thing had so much grease on it, could hardly see the gray anymore.
And if there was one club house rule he was not about to break, it was that greasy coveralls and automotive rags were not allowed in the washer and dryer, ’cause they left oily grime behind. Sara would lose her mind, which meant Stick would lose his, and no way was T getting in front of the Russian Iceberg when he was pissed.
T-Bear’s pride was already beat to shit. He didn’t need a face to match.
He scowled as he remembered the cause of his embarrassment—a certain platinum blonde stripper with DD-cups and a black heart to match her roots.
His concentration broken, he straightened from the car, twisting from side to side, a wrench in one hand, a loosened nut in the other. He might be the biggest brother wearing a Devil’s Flyer cut in E Washington, but a man still got a crick in his back bending over a car engine.
“Best concentrate on females like this one,” he muttered, looking down at the engine of the gold ’66 Mustang he was currently tuning up. “She purrs like a kitten, gives a sweet ride, and long as a man takes care of her, she always takes care of him.”
In the next bay over, Moke was in the pit underneath a pickup truck, his big frame mostly hidden. “Krystelle get you for that much?” he asked.
“Nah. Few hundred.” But fuck, T would’ve given her the money if she asked for it.
She’d spent the last month cooing and fluttering her lashes at him, along with shaking her ass and titties o’ course, cause that’s how she made a living, stripping out at State Line, on the Idaho border.
She’d had him right where she wanted him. But once she got into his bed at the club, he got one blow-job and woke up with her long gone, his available cash with her. “Worst part is, she took my phone too.”
Moke snorted. “That piece o’ junk? Couldn’t even play Elven Warriors on it with the screen all crack li’ dat.”
“Only ’cause you knocked me off my bar stool onto it over at the Hangar,” T grumbled. “Anyways, I can play games at the club house on that sweet system Stick got us. You’ve seen Elf warrior Sheenah on the big screen, right? It’s like a guy could walk right up and grab that ass of hers. All in that tight little green outfit…mm-hmm.”
“Da kine,” his friend agreed, of course. Because, find a man with a dick in his pants who didn’t perk up when Sheenah stalked on the video game screen.
Now that would make a fine stripper costume. He might suggest it to Candy, a raven-haired stripper who was a friend of the club with a sense of humor as big as her titties. She’d likely think his idea was a hoot, although she just as likely wouldn’t actually do it. Costumes cost money.
Moke climbed out of the pit. He stood, as broad as T and nearly as tall, as he reached for a rag to wipe his hands on. Samoan-Hawaiian in stature and looks, his skin was golden brown, his eyes, brows and lashes ebony like the long hair visible under the beany he wore pulled down low.
“I could still listen to audio-books on that phone, though,” T said, getting back to his gripe. “And I was right in the middle of a real good one.”
“They make comics for bikers?” A glimmer of a smile touched Moke’s dark, solid face.
T gave him the stink eye. “Smart ass. The Brother-Band series is chapter books. It’s whaddya call it—young adult. Great adventure story about these Viking-like dudes, back in olden times. But I’m on the last book in the series, and now I can’t finish it till I get another phone.”
There was a short silence as Moke chose a Coke from the cooler under the workbench and popped it open. “I got you, if you need a loan.”
T-Bear’s cheeks burned. “Nah. I’m good, thanks. Cooler owes me for our last poker night. An’ luckily I had some cash in my other pants—Kryssy didn’t find that.”
Moke chuckled, and T joined in, because it was funny, picturing the busty blonde picking her way through his clothes, which he generally kept handy on the floor, clean piled in one spot and dirty in another, and no one but him knew which was which. Hell, sometimes even he got ’em mixed up.
He mimed the blonde holding her nose with one hand while she picked up a pair of jeans with her fingertips. His pants did tend to get kinda gamy, since he often went commando, ‘specially when he forgot to do laundry.
“Bet she wished she had some Vicks to dab under her nose like the cops do with a deader,” he said.
Moke snorted his soda out his nose.
That was funny as hell too, and they both busted out laughing.
But as they walked out of the shop a short while later and locked the door behind them, T sighed heavily. “I dunno,” he said, squinting as the cold March wind blew his curly red hair into his eyes. “Think I’m just gonna give up on women. Buy me a blowup doll and set her in the corner when I’m done.”
“Seen a movie about that,” Moke said as they moved to their bikes, parked in brightly painted spots, on the south side of the garage. “‘Cept the guy was in love with his doll. His family went along and pretended she was real too.”
T groaned. “Aw, fuck it. That’d be just my luck. There I’d be at the club, and the old ladies would be all, ‘Now T, you know you can bring your blow-up bitch to party with us. We like her, she’s quiet and sweet.’”
Moke laughed, his white teeth flashing. “Specially Lesa.”
This was true. The third of their tight trio, Pete ‘Brews’ Vanko, was engaged to a vivacious, big-hearted brunette, Lesa Boggs. She helped run Pete’s Hangar Brewpub and Grill. On their days off, they often hung out at the club house with the rest of the Flyer family.
Lesa and T got along great.
But just a few weeks ago, she’d tried to set him up with some local chick who worked at the hardware store. No offense to Lesa, but the gal reminded him of a cute, little chipmunk. He’d crush her if he rolled over on her in bed. T-Bear had steered clear and kinda hoped Lesa would quit trying to find him a woman.
“There’s a party at the club house this weekend. There’ll be plenty wahines there,” Moke said.
T-Bear shrugged. There was no one in the current pussy posse who appealed to him. “Think I’m done tryin’ for a while. Now I’m off to get me another phone. See you later.”
Moke pointed a finger at him. “I’m comin’ with. Gonna make sure you sign up for the insurance this time. You’d done that last time, you’d be gettin’ a free phone today.”
This was true, and T didn’t mind having company, so he merely nodded.
The clerk at the local phone store was a pretty redhead who was tickled to have two bikers, especially Moke, interrupt her boring evening. In between flirting with the big Hawaiian, she set T up with a new smart-phone in a shock-proof case, with insurance.
“You can get a second phone, too,” she told him. “We have a BOGO deal on. One for you, and one for your girlfriend?”
“Don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Oh. Well, the deal is good for a week,” she said. “In case you find a lady.” She smiled at Moke.
“That ain’t happening,” T muttered. He paid for the phone and the insurance, had her input his contacts and info from the cloud, and tossed the little bag and papers in the trash on his way out. No use keeping a bunch of shit he could hardly read.
He’d no sooner hit the parking lot than his phone buzzed in his pocket. He palmed it and tapped the screen to bring up a text.
‘Told U I’d find U a great gal!‘ he read slowly aloud.
The accompanying picture was of a twenty-something woman with honey blonde hair drifting like silk around her face and throat.
Her head was tipped back as she laughed, her peachy lips open, eyes nearly closed. She wore a simple brown tee and no jewelry, but she was real pretty. Her soft face and the honey-hued freckles beside the corner of her mouth did something for him.
She looked fresh and natural, like every move she made wouldn’t be calculated for its effect on the nearest man or men. A regular home-town honey.
“Hey, who dat?” Moke asked, peering over his shoulder. “I’d buy her a phone.”
“Yeah, me too,” T-Bear said. “But who the hell is Rezan Fardo? No, Faro. That’s who this text is from.”
Then saying the name aloud clicked a memory. “Oh, right. He’s the little dude I met at State Line, back in their poker room. Beat him at cards, and he just laughed and said he’d get it back some other time.”
The guy had joked something about sending T-Bear a pretty woman that would cost him his winnings but be worth every penny.
“She da kine. You know her?”
T-Bear smiled slowly. “No, but I think I’m gonna.”
“Huh. Guess you ain’t done trying after all.”