‘Stick’ Vanko was enjoying a beer with his friend and club brother, Jack Moran, on the north shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
On this sunny, warm afternoon in late June, Stick was in the mood for a ride, and it brought him through the small, pretty resort town of Coeur d’Alene, and out along the lake shore road to the site of Jack’s woman’s small, retro cafe, the BeeHive, and the site of Jack’s future supper club, the Stinger.
Below them, several feet down the sloping shore, a working barge with a huge crane was moored between rows of stout pilings. Here a sturdy wooden dock would be built, for cafe and supper club patrons to moor their boats, along with a private moorage and swim area for family and friends.
Jack had just put a ring on his woman a few weeks before, in front of Stick and two of his brothers.
“Once I get The Stinger built, get business goin’ good, I’m gonna put a baby in Lindi’s belly,” Jack said now, a gleam in his eyes.
Stick shook his head at the other man.
In some ways, they were similar, both tall, broad-shouldered and muscular, with blond hair. But there the resemblance ended.
Jack’s tousled, collar length hair was sandy, his eyes hazel, his tough face speaking of English ancestry. Jack was a good man to have at his side in a fight, but he was mellow, easy-going, especially these days.
Stick knew he himself was called the Russian Iceberg, often in an uncomplimentary way. He had the high cheekbones, brutal jaw and pale blue eyes of his Russian forefathers, and since his parents had immigrated when he was a baby, and spoke Russian to him and his younger brother, he still had remnants of the accent in his speech.
As President of the Airway Heights, WA chapter of the Devils’ Flyers MC, Stick used his appearance and his deep voice as tools and weapons, to intimidate and control. He’d mellow out when he was old—for now, he had shit to do.
“Do not need a ball-and-chain,” he said. “Glad you found a good woman, Jack, but I’m waitin’ till I’m old to settle.”
Jack gave him a thoughtful look. “Being with a good woman don’t mean I give up anything. Means I get more—a lot more. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, ’cause now I know exactly what I’m working for, and if I have to fight, what I’m fighting for.”
“Happy for you, brother. Someday,” Stick shrugged. “Maybe I’ll find a pretty little brunette who’ll do what I say, warm my bed at night and rub my back, and bring me my whiskey. Be at peace.”
He chuckled, mocking his own vision. He wouldn’t be ready for that shit for another twenty or thirty years. At nearly forty, he liked his life the way it was, wild and free.
But someday, when he did choose a woman of his own, she’d be quiet, sweet. She’d keep herself to herself except when he was ready to share, and she’d let him go his own way when he needed to, which would be a lot of the time.
“Hope that works out for you, brother,” Jack said with a smirk. “But I gotta tell you, you meet the right woman, she’ll slip in there like warm honey, fill you up before you know what’s changed. You’ll just know your life ain’t complete without that taste in your mouth, in your bed. Happened to me, happened to Keys. You may be a badass leader of men, but you ain’t immune.”
Stick snorted. “The hell I ain’t immune. I’ve been inoculated by a fuckin’ queen wasp.”
And Contessa might be a flashy beauty with tits and legs that would not quit, but his ex was also a whack job, which he would’ve noticed if he hadn’t been so busy enjoying her in every position they could think up.
When he’d sobered up, it was too late.
Since then, he stuck to the women who eddied in and out of the club house, and the strippers at the State Line clubs. He’d lost his taste for flashy blondes, and he’d absolutely lost his taste for exclusive. Wasn’t for him.
Jack nodded, giving due respect, because all the Flyers knew Stick’s story. “Gotta do what’s right for you.”
“Drink to that.” Stick drained his beer, then dropped the bottle in Jack’s cooler. “Thanks for the beer, brother. You’ll be at the 4th barbecue?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Jack said. “Partyin’ high style is the only way.”
Stick nodded his agreement. The Flyers partied in a style that befitted their prosperity, and they were good at it, no doubt about it.
But as he rolled his oversize, custom, Fatboy Harley out onto the road and hit the throttle, he couldn’t shake the suspicion that there at the last, Moran had been pitying him.
He shook his head in amused disgust. Let a woman throw a rope over a man, and he wanted everyone else to follow him into the corral.
Jack looked good, he had to admit. The fucker had an easy peace about him he’d never had before. Whatever, Stick was done with that ‘one woman’ shit, for a good long time.
Honey, hell. He’d never had a taste for sweets, didn’t plan to develop one now.
Later that evening, as he worked out in the gym/weight room he’d set up in his barn, Stick received a phone call that hardened his resolve to remain a free man into sheer ice.
“This is Vanko,” he said when he saw Dare Leupold’s name His attorney was a sharp-dressing, sharp-tongued law-dog—although he was more like a wolf—with offices in downtown Coeur d’Alene.
He’d been on retainer with Stick since recommended by the Chases of Chase Cycles in Coeur d’Alene, who also used Leupold & Leupold as their attorneys.
Dare’s sense of justice allowed him to ignore certain of his clients’ activities while protecting their overall legal interests. His best clients knew he’d ignore certain off-the-books trade, but wouldn’t put up with anything that would endanger innocents, especially women and kids. A sniff of that shit would cause him to terminate services and find a way to let the cops know where to look.
Since Stick shared the same views, they worked well together. Some of the MCs might be into prostitution, hard drugs and extortion, but not the Flyers. Such was not ‘high’ style.
Stick left his phone on speaker as he continued to press the two seventy-pound weights in his hands. He’d been at it a while, and he was sweating and breathing hard, his muscles burning.
Dare wasted no time getting to the point. “Stick, just received a notice from the State of Idaho that Contessa has a parole hearing next week.”
“What the fuck?” Stick demanded, fury firing in his gut. He panted for breath as he straightened. “Judge gave her fifty years with no chance.”
“Yeah. However, she’s now attracted the attention of a women’s rights group. They help battered women who finally snap and kill their abusers. Evidently Contessa’s been working one of their young attorneys—convinced her that she feared for her life, and the boys’ lives.”
It was a good thing he was in the weight room, because Stick lost it. With a roar of outrage that left his throat raw, and his ears ringing, he hurled first one and then the other barbell as hard as he could across the big, open space.
The weights hit the wall with jarring thuds and bounced, landing on the black mats underneath the weight area. The second jangled as it struck the first.
“I never laid a hand on the bitch, until the night she tried to take me out! Yeah, she had bruises, but only because I threw her off of me, half-crazy with pain.”
“I know, man. And believe me, we will be reminding the parole board of that.”
“All right,” Stick growled. “Tell me what I have to do to keep that crazy bitch in her cage.”
“Give me two days to get the trial documents ready,” Dare said crisply. “We’ll attend the hearing, and you’ll have a few words ready as well. We’ll remind them that her defense team could find absolutely no evidence that you ever abused her, verbally or physically. Etcetera. We’ll also remind them that she left her own babies behind with a hopeless alcoholic to go party with other men.”
“We’d better be ready, because if she gets out …” Although he wouldn’t say so to Dare, Stick would not hesitate to do whatever it took to keep her away from his boys, for good. And he did not want to have to take such extreme measures, not to his boys’ mother. That was dark, even after what she’d tried to do to him.
“Say no more,” Dare ordered. “I know. We won’t let her near the boys, I promise you.”
“You don’t know how good she is at convincing people her shit don’t stink,” Stick said. “She’s a fuckin’ chameleon when she wants to be.”
“Maybe, but chameleons act on instinct. I operate on intellect, and no reptile is getting past me. You go enjoy your 4th celebration. I’ll be in touch by Tuesday at the latest.”
“All right. Thanks for the great news, Sunshine.”
Dare gave a low growl of laughter, and ended the call.
Stick stalked to the bench press, lay down and gripped the weighted bar, pressing it straight up and out with a guttural roar. Then he did it again and again, until his arms shook and his lungs fought for air. Finally, he muscled the bar back into its supports and lay there, panting, his muscles pumped and bulging.
No. That bitch could not be allowed to walk free. Not while he was alive to stop her.
He was through letting a woman affect his life.
The next day
Sara Cannon, the Queen of Serene—called by some the Queen of Ice—had had it.
Her hands were clenched on a file folder, so tightly she was gonna break a nail if she didn’t relax.
And angry as she was, she might just need every single one of her nails to scratch the smug face of the pretentious twerp smirking across the desk at her. The desk that should have been Sara’s.
But no, her boss, County Prosecutor George Bartlett, had to hire a teensy-weensy brunette with a degree in business communications to run his office. As if five experienced office employees needed fancy jargon to help them do their jobs for the prosecutor and his assistants.
“I’m sure you understand,” Nicki Tupper said, giving Sara a look of sweet sympathy that was so fake Sara’s fingers flexed again. “Mr. Bartlett and his assistants must have a collegial atmosphere in order to do their job effectively. The training you’re being asked to attend is simply to ensure you have the skills to do your part in maintaining that atmosphere. Since you, er, don’t have the formal business degree that would now be required to fill your position.”
‘Formal business degree’, her lily-white ass. Sara had started working for Kootenai County when she was nineteen. Now twenty-seven, she had as much work experience as everyone except Marlene, the CP and his assistant prosecutors, and a lot more than this twerp in a cutesy suit.
“I have an associate degree from North Idaho College,” she began. “And eight years—”
“And I have a Master’s in Business Communications,” the slender brunette interrupted smoothly. “And County Prosecutor Bartlett expects me to ensure our office is run to his satisfaction. I’m sure you don’t want me to be forced to report another infraction of our office rules … hmm?”
As she spoke, the other woman looked down and straightened her open desk diary a fraction of an inch. Her nails were a pale pink to match the ruffle on her blouse.
“Oh, and I’m not sure if it was made clear,” Ms. Tupper went on, the corners of her little mouth curving upwards ever so slightly. “Since you won’t be able to fulfill your duties during the training, those days will be unpaid.”
“What?” Sara rose with a jerk and stared down at the younger woman, who flinched, her eyes widening in alarm, as they should be, since Sara was a tall blonde of Scandinavian ancestry built on the lines of a Valkyrie. “Unpaid days? What the heck?”
The brunette cast a look at the closed door of the prosecutor’s office and frowned reprovingly. “Voice level, Ms Cannon. I would think you’d understand that we really cannot pay an employee for a training caused by her own behavior issues.”
Fury boiled up inside her, so hot and intense Sara felt her face and throat pulse with heat. The curse of being a true blonde—every flush was highly visible. Not that she gave a damn about that now.
She’d worked her way up from her first job with the county, filing papers in the public works department part-time while attending North Idaho College, a few blocks away. She’d been hired in this department because of her excellent work standards, and also because her former supervisors gave her high marks for being always cheerful and cooperative, no matter what was asked of her. And she’d endured plenty of upset stomachs and teeth-grinding to achieve those ratings.
And what had all that gotten her? This smirking, little twerp walked in the door and took over with her degree in Bitchy Back-Stabbing and Under-Mining.
No. Just no! No more Nice Sara.
Her best friends, Lindi and Kit, were always telling her she was too buttoned-up and controlled. Well, actually Kit had put it much more strongly over drinks not too long ago, telling Sara she needed to ‘get the stick out of her ass’ and loosen up.
Since both Lindi and Kit had recently taken up with men who lived the MC lifestyle, Sara usually took their advice with a large shaker of salt, but right now she was wishing she had a big, tough biker-man looming behind her, glaring Nicki Tupper into gibbering terror.
This little pipsqueak looked like her idea of violence was breaking a nail. Sara could totally take her down. She took Zumba twice a week and lifted weights to keep her full curves in check. Tupper probably did yoga poses on a pale pink mat to match her nails and pinchy little lips. Sara had envied her slim little figure for a few days, until she discovered it housed a soul worthy of a demon.
“You’re telling me that I’m being placed on unpaid leave for three days to go to some training over in Spokane?” Sara demanded, not bothering to moderate her rising voice, because she no longer cared who heard her. “All over some supposed infraction of dumb-ass rules you brought here with you? Well, I refuse! I’m not going to the training, and you’re not placing me on leave, either.”
Tupper’s smirk was gone. She eyed Sara warily, her hands placed on the desk as if braced to flee should Sara become violent—which she just might. “Ms Cannon, I suggest you moderate your tone.”
“Suggest away, Ms Tupper,” Sara interrupted. She held up her right hand, palm out. “But talk to the hand, because this woman is through listening.”
Oh, God, that felt great. So great, she was far from finished. Darned—no, damned if she’d let the twerp have the final word. Sara was going to her real boss.
She strode out into the main office, noting that Marlene and the two younger clerks were all clustered near by the copy machine, the two younger ones with papers in their hands. One of them dropped her head when she saw Sara, pretending to peruse the paper in her hand. The other watched openly, eyes wide, mouth open as Sara headed for their boss’ closed door.
“Sara,” Marlene hissed, shaking her head so vehemently her carefully waved brunette hair flew. “Hon, don’t …”
Sara liked and respected the older woman, but she was through listening to her pleading to get along with Tupper, because Marlene didn’t want to lose her as a coworker.
Instead, Sara rapped sharply on the door with the shiny nameplate ‘George Bartlett, County Prosecutor’, and without waiting, opened it and walked in. It closed behind her with a thud.
George Bartlett was a tall, thin man with a perpetually harassed frown bunching his heavy brows together, and short, gray hair. This morning he sat at his desk, papers strewn over his desk, pen in hand and phone in the other as he scrolled through messages.
He looked up at Sara in shock and then displeasure—his staff did not breach his inner sanctum when the door was closed. “Sara? What is it?” His tone said the building had better be on fire to merit her sudden appearance.
Sara stopped before his desk. “George,” she said, struggling to control her hurt and anger. “I have worked for you for three years. Before Nicki Tupper came, you always gave me great job reports. Now she’s telling me I have to go on unpaid leave and—and attend some training for bad employees. What the hell, George?”
Oops, second mistake. George Bartlett was a member of a local Baptist church which disapproved of dancing, drinking and swearing—and everything else, as far as Sara could tell. She’d always managed to respect the language piece without any trouble, because she didn’t swear much herself.
Well, maybe at home, when she was attempting repairs and hit herself with the hammer instead of her intended target. Or when she was really, really angry—like now.
But she’d never been this angry at work before.
“Sorry,” she said, pushing back a lock of pale blonde hair that had fallen from her neat French twist.
But it was too late. Her boss threw down his pen with a scowl. “I beg your pardon? I am in the middle of a very important case here, Sara. If you have concerns about office matters, kindly address them through the appropriate channels.”
“What? How is that going to help?” The appropriate channel meant through his new personnel manager, who was the problem.
Mistake number three, directly contradicting her boss. George was only forty-six, but he was an old-fashioned small-town guy, who thought women should smile and defer to the nearest male.
His female staffers rolled their eyes and mimicked him over cocktails, but in the office, they toed the line. George was big on lines, as evidenced by his next words.
He regarded Sara coldly. “This office has instituted personnel standards as decided on by the new city manager and the mayor’s office. If you wish to register a protest with them, be my guest. But right now, you’re on my time. So it seems to me, you have two choices, Sara. You may do as requested by my office personnel manager, or … you may look for another department where you might be happier.”
Sara recoiled, feeling as if she’d been slapped. George’s right eye twitched, almost in a wince, but he controlled it instantly.
He wasn’t going to bend. Well, then … neither was she.
“So, just to be clear,” she said, her voice shaking, her heart pounding so hard she felt as if she’d been running, “After working for you for three years, with uncounted hours of unpaid overtime to do my job, and exemplary marks on my evaluations, now because I’ve had a couple of justifiable arguments with your new personnel manager, I’m being docked three days of wages … or I can quit?”
He sighed heavily, and started to rake a hand through his hair, then stopped—probably remembering his fresh hair-cut, complete with styling products. He set his hands palm down on his desk instead. “Why don’t you go back to your desk and spend a little time thinking, Sara. And we’ll just forget this conversation. Hmm?”
Sara stared at him. Really? His solution was ‘let’s just forget about it’?
“Hmm,” she repeated, cocking her head to mirror him. They probably looked like a couple of parrots mimicking each other. “No, I don’t think I will, George. I think I’ll take door number two.”
She straightened, ignoring the flush reddening his face, and the anger tightening his thin lips.
“I’ll have my resignation on your desk in an hour. Oh, and those cases I’ve been documenting, the filing system I’ve been re-organizing all spring and summer?” She flung out an arm, pointing toward the records room. “Guess someone else will have to figure those out, hmm? I know, maybe Tupper can pick up the slack and do all my regular work, instead of spending her time thinking up new ways to torment the rest of your staff.”
And then she turned and got the hell out of there, before she picked up the Idaho Bar Association award prominently displayed on his desk, and chucked it through the nearest window.
Tupper was hovering in the door of her tiny office, gaze avid. Sara gave her scathing glare that sent the woman back half a step, hand on her office door knob.
Sara headed for her own desk, where she sat, grabbed her mouse and clicked briskly, opening up a business letter form—or maybe it was a subpoena form, who the heck knew? She blinked, but the page was still blurry.
A warm hand squeezed her shoulder. “Hey, hon, let’s go get us a coffee,” Marlene said briskly. “Here’s your purse. No, Nicki, Sara does not want to talk right now, thank you so much for your concern.”
“You can’t just walk out in the middle of the work day,” Tupper squeaked.
“And we’re not,” Marlene snapped. “We’re taking a few of the coffee breaks we’ve missed lately because you had us in team-building meetings—and we’re taking them back-to-back.” The look she aimed at the smaller woman said to put that in her pipe and smoke it.
Leaving Tupper sputtering behind them, Marlene led Sara out of the office and down the hallway to the door that led out onto the street.
They walked down Government Way, a boulevard shaded by huge maple trees, and crossed through the sparse traffic to a small row of businesses that included The Lake Beanery.
Inside, the coffee shop smelled of dark roast and cinnamon, busy with tourists and locals sipping hot or iced coffee drinks, and noshing on sweet treats. Sara saw all of them at a distance, as if through a layer of gauze.
“Mocha frappucino?” Marlene asked. “That’s what I’m having. It’s off my diet, but God knows we both deserve a treat.”
Sara nodded, but she didn’t really emerge from her fugue state until they were seated on a bench in the shade outside, looking down a short hill toward a park and the lake beyond.
It was a beautiful, hot sunny day in July. All around Sara teemed happy, carefree people in summer clothing. A group of women her age wearing swimsuits with token cover-ups strolled out of the coffee shop with beach bags, headed down through the park to the lake with their iced drinks.
Marlene nudged her with an elbow. “Drink your frappucino, hon. Cost me a finger.”
“What?” When Sara frowned blankly, the older woman shrugged, her eyes twinkling, “Well, not an arm and a leg, but a small body part. So drink the darn thing.”
Sara took a long drink of the cold coffee mixture. It was sweet, and a little salty. Or maybe that was the ache of tears in the back of her throat.
“So I figure,” Marlene said after slurping on her own drink, “You can catch George after his three o’clock coffee break, and he’ll be in a better mood. Then you can—”
“No,” Sara said, her voice cutting harshly across her friend’s softer one. “I can’t.”
Marlene lowered her coffee, her eyes filling with alarm. “What does that mean?”
Sara took another drink and cut her gaze left to her friend. “It means … I already quit.” She’d demolished her bridges, blown them sky-high. The burning in her stomach said it was true, although her brain was having trouble taking it in.
Marlene opened her mouth and Sara shook her head. “No, I did. I quit. I’m just … I’m done, Mar. I’m done keeping my mouth shut, and going along to get along. I’m done smiling when I want to kick George’s misogynistic, stuck-in-the-sixties ass. And I am totally done putting up with Nicki Tupper’s smug, shit-eating, little pointy rat-face.”
Two women walking by looked to Sara and then giggled.
Marlene choked on her drink, and had to cough into her hand. “Did you just use the s-word, Ms Jones? I am shocked, simply shocked. That does not support the collegial atmosphere we are working to build here in the CP’s office.”
The two of them snickered together. And for approximately thirty seconds, Sara felt better.
But just as quickly, Marlene’s smile turned upside down. “Oh, Sara. Are you sure? I mean, did you actually say the words to George, or can we fudge this with a—a PMS moment? God knows George believes our fragile little brains are ruled by our hormones.”
Sara’s chest still ached, but now the pain was not as jagged. Resolve. It hurt, but like ripping a bandage off a cut that had festered.
She shook her head as she gazed back across the street at the tan 60’s-era brick of the Kootenai County, Idaho courthouse. “Oh, I said the words. And George heard every one.”
She cut her gaze to Marlene. “Sorry, my friend. I’m not kissing anyone’s pointy rat-butt to get back in, either. And I’m definitely not taking three days of unpaid leave for behavior training!”
Marlene sighed heavily. “Okay, I get it. But God, I hate that this is happening.”
“I know,” Sara said. “Me too. And now,” she rose and brushed down the skirt of her classic, navy, linen shift. “You should get back to work, my friend, before Tupper has an excuse to give you grief.”
Marlene rose with her. “What am I going to do without you? And more importantly, what are you going to do?”
Sara only had to think for a few seconds. “I’m going to go cry on my two best friends’ shoulders,” she said wryly. “And let them say ‘I told you so’ a time or two—because they’ve been trying to talk me into looking for a new career for a long time. Then I’m going to drink most of a bottle of wine, probably.”
And then? Well… she had no idea.
But it would be something that did not involve a man–any man–being in charge of her.