Happy Valentine's Day! My gift to you: an extended look at one of the flashback sequences in American Hellhound.
From American Hellhound
copyright ©2017 by Lauren Gilley
Ghost stepped out of the pharmacy with three different kinds of children’s fever reducer. Plus some Pepto-Bismol in case the stomach trouble persisted. At the register, he’d added a package of Skittles, because Aidan loved Skittles, and candy always made everything better. He stood on the sidewalk, plastic bag in one hand, head tipped back so he could feel the sun on his face. It wasn’t warm enough to fight the nip in the air, but he liked the way the light burned against his eyelids. Maybe, if he stood there long enough, his problems would melt away into the soothing whiteness that slowly filled his head.
The wind kicked up by a passing car tugged at his clothes, and with a sigh, he righted himself, blinked his vision back to normal, and started back toward his bike.
He glanced automatically toward the door of Hiram’s Spirits as he passed. His head still hurt, and his stomach still rolled, souvenirs of last night’s drinking. The hangover would fade when he got some food and water into him. Or he could crack open a beer and chase it away quicker than that.
No, he had to get back to Aidan. Stay focused. Plus, it was alarming how much he leaned on alcohol these days.
Two girls stood outside Hiram’s, shoulders braced against the concrete façade, wind playing with their hair. One was brunette, wore too much mascara, and regarded him with sullen defiance. The other one…
The other one was worth a second look.
She was blonde, and had a sweet face. Red lipstick. A too-big leather jacket, white tank top that clung to her breasts, tight-tight jeans. Her boots looked old and beat-up. She was smoking; he caught a glimpse of red nail polish as she lifted her cig and took a drag. In a physical sense, she was just like the groupies at the clubhouse. It was something else, something intangible, some aura she projected that raised the fine hairs on his arms – that was why he slowed down and really looked at her.
Her eyes came to his – wide, hazel – and lingered a beat too long. No smile, no wink, no pretend-seductive lip bite. He’d become so immune to the tactics of the groupies that her total lack of flirtation captured his attention. Her gaze swept down to his toes and then back up, lingering somewhere in the vicinity of the little crown patch sewn onto his breast pocket – the one that marked him as royal family. Being Duane’s only nephew had its perks, if you overlooked the burdens.
She was cute. She was hot. But like hell did he need another female complication in his life. At least with the groupies there were no expectations. They traded sex for a little security and a place to crash. Real women – and he felt his lip curl when he thought of Olivia – wanted things. Demanded them, and when they didn’t get them, left you for some other schmuck.
He kept walking.
He was three steps past them when a tentative voice called, “Sir?”
He should ignore her. He really should. But the edge of nervousness in her voice reached straight through his logical side and touched his hindbrain. It had been years since Olivia had spoken to him with anything besides frosty disapproval. The shy, uncertain lilt to this girl’s voice did things to his baser instincts.
“Sir?” she said again, and there couldn’t be any harm in seeing what she wanted, could there?
Ghost halted and turned around. “Yeah?”
The brunette snorted a laugh and turned her head away, muttering something into her hand.
The blonde stuck her cig in her mouth, slid a pair of black Ray-Bans into place, and took the cig back out again, exhaling a long, unsteady stream of smoke. “Can I ask you a favor?” Her voice was stronger this time, but he knew what the sunglasses meant: she was even more nervous now.
He felt one corner of his mouth tugging in a reluctant grin. “Depends on what the favor is. I got somewhere to be.”
She banded an arm across her middle, holding tight, but smiled, lifted her chin, and said, “Oh, it won’t take long. Promise. Just a quick favor.”
Ghost took a step toward her, and then another. Close enough to see the smattering of goosebumps across her chest. Close enough to see her throat jump as she swallowed. Close enough to see her tap ash off her cigarette with a nervous flick of her thumbnail. She was young, younger than he’d first thought. So many of the groupies slathered on the makeup and dyed their hair and tried to reclaim their glory days. This girl had smooth, smooth skin, pale as cream, a faint tracery of blue veins visible at the base of her throat. Her cheeks still had that faint hint of baby fat that meant she was younger than he was.
“Alright,” he said. “So long as it’s quick.”
She let out a breath that said she hadn’t expected him to agree. “Okay.” She reached into her back pocket, overlarge jacket gaping in front so he got a view of her narrow waist, and flared hips. She pulled out a folded twenty and extended it toward him. “We were hoping you could go in there” – tilt of her head back toward the building – “and buy us some beer.”
He wanted to laugh. Instead, he said, “You’re not twenty-one.”
“Not yet.” Her voice grew defensive. “Just…” She sighed. “Look, it’s dumb, okay, but we can’t buy any, and it’s not like there’s any at home for me to nick. So would you mind? Please? Mr…”
“Nah, that’s my club name, darlin’.”
The brunette turned around. “So you’re really a Lean Dog?” she asked, and then slapped a hand over her mouth like she couldn’t believe her own boldness.
He chuckled. “Yeah, really. And don’t be calling me ‘mister.’ Makes me feel old.”
The blonde nodded. “Fair enough. So will you do it?” She waggled the money at him. “You can keep the change.”
Ghost had never asked a stranger to buy him beer because he’d never had to. He’d grown up in the club, and alcohol had been available to him from an inappropriate age. He’d never had to leave home to get into trouble – home was trouble.
But he knew other kids didn’t have it so easy. Strict parents and curfews and the constant threat of being grounded.
“Yeah.” He took the money from her. “What kind do you want?”
She shrugged. “I don’t care. Whatever’s good.”
“You trust my judgement?”
“I figure a real Lean Dog knows plenty about drinking,” she shot back. “Yeah, I trust you.”
He had the sudden, inexplicable urge to make her regret that statement.
“Go around the side,” he said. “Wait for me there.”
He entered the store grinning to himself. There were days – a lot more days than he liked to admit – that he wished he could rewind his life and go back to the time when getting beer was his biggest worry of the day. Those two girls would have larger problems soon enough; he wasn’t going to be an adult about this. Let them drink, let them have a little fun, he thought.
He grabbed a six-pack of Bud Light – because they didn’t need to have too much fun in the middle of the day – and a bottle of Jack for himself. He didn’t have any at home, and he figured he’d need it by the end of the day.
Bobby was working the register, and he greeted Ghost with familiarity. “Heard it was a hell of a party last night,” he said with a suggestive eyebrow waggle.
“Now where would you hear that, Bobby?”
“I got my sources.”
“You should come one night.”
Bobby laughed. “Nah. My girl would kill me.” He bagged the six-pack and bottle and pushed them across the counter. “You have fun, though.”
Ghost pulled to an abrupt halt in front of the glass door on his way out. Caught off guard by his dim reflection.
He carried a bag in each hand. In one: whiskey and beer. In the other: his sick son’s medicine. The sad absurdity of his life hit him anew. Twenty-seven and divorced, a single father, an angry Army vet with a drinking problem, a shitty apartment, no future prospects, and a bad habit of falling into bed with women whose names he didn’t know. When he woke up each morning, it was with a sick ball of dread lodged at the base of his throat. He looked forward to nothing but the next toke, next drink, next release. He couldn’t remember what happiness looked, sounded, or tasted like.
It was a waste of a life.
And staring at his own pathetic reflection, he was furious about it.
He shoved the door open too hard, so hard it swung back on its hinges and nearly collided with the brick that served as a doorstop in the warm months.
“Hey,” Bobby protested.
The little blonde was waiting for him, as instructed, around the end of the building, leaning back against the cinderblocks with one booted foot braced behind her, a fresh cigarette burning between her fingers.
Stupid little bitch, he thought, viciously. Standing there in the middle of the damn day, ruining her lungs, giving money to total strangers. She was young, there was nothing wrong with her life, and she was already trying to fuck it up. What a waste. What a goddamn waste.
“Hey,” he said, sharply, and her head snapped around. “I got your beer.” He set the bags down and reached into the Hiram’s one for the six-pack. “Where’s your friend?” His voice was rough. He sounded like an old man, like his father, like Duane. He was just so angry, suddenly.
“A cop drove past and she got spooked,” the girl said with an airy shrug. But Ghost could read the tension in her shoulders. She was spooked too, but was pushing through. Proving something to herself, or some shit.
“Not you, though, huh?” Ghost stepped over the bags and into her personal space, right up close. She had to press her back to the wall and tip her head back to look up and meet his stare. All he saw were the lenses of the Ray-Bans…and the trembling, red bow of her mouth. She was spooked alright…scared to death. “You’re the brave one, right?” he pressed, leaning in close enough to smell the smoke on her breath.
“I…” she started, half-indignation, half-fear.
He reached up, one fast move, and pushed her sunglasses into her hair. Beneath them, her eyes were wide, shocked, a warm green-brown shot through with gold. They flicked back and forth across his face, trying to get a read on him. He could smell her shampoo, lotion, the faint chemical tang of her lipstick: feminine smells. He saw her pulse flutter at the base of her throat. Saw her nostrils flare as she took a deep breath.
There were a dozen things he could have said to her. But what came out of his mouth was: “What’s your name?”
One of the things Maggie had never understood about her friend Rachel was the way she seemed to be indiscriminately attracted to every man alive. Maybe it was hormones, or maybe it was a ruse in order to appear older and worldly, but she flirted shamelessly with everything male on two legs. She was always saying things like “isn’t he cute?” and “you should ask him out.” There appeared to be no pattern of age, looks, fitness level, or style. And when Maggie refused to “ask him out,” Rachel would shrug, tug her shirt down, and say, “Well then I will.”
If she was being honest, Maggie didn’t really give a damn about boys right now. Her whole life was locked down by her mother’s plans and expectations; the last thing she wanted was to trade her mother’s ideals for some boy’s. It was just another form of subjugation. She didn’t go on dates, didn’t make eyes at anyone, and shuddered when her cotillion class dance partners put their clammy hands on her waist. Maybe some day she’d feel a stirring of attraction for someone, but it hadn’t happened yet.
At least…it hadn’t happened prior to today.
The biker, the Lean Dog who’d told her his name was Ghost – she’d never felt anything like the frisson of energy he inspired in the pit of her stomach. He was tall and broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped and sharp-featured. The sunlight turned glossy and slick in his short, dark, curly hair. He needed to shave, and the pushed-up sleeves of his shirt revealed tan, muscled, tattooed forearms. He looked dangerous enough already – miles from the cotillion boys, and a good bit older, too – and then there was the Lean Dogs cut. The symbol that incited fear and censure in Knoxville. Half the men in the city wanted to have the lot of them imprisoned. And the other half wanted to be one of them. There were rebels, there were bad boys, and then there were Lean Dogs.
If anyone was going to buy underage girls beer and think nothing of it, it was a one-percenter. She still couldn’t believe her boldness, the way she’d been able to keep her voice from shaking.
Right now, with the rough concrete wall biting into her shoulders through the jacket, she couldn’t believe the anger in his gaze. Nor the way he stepped in close and loomed over her. She tried and failed to suppress a shiver.
Just before Rachel took off, she said, “You’re crazy for messing with a Dog,” and apparently she’d been right.
Right now, Maggie felt very crazy, and very small, and very-very stupid.
“M-my name?” she stammered, trying to shrink back another inch. There was nowhere to go. She had a feeling he’d make a grab for her if she tried to duck to the side.
He grinned, all teeth, and it wasn’t friendly. Up close, his eyes were coffee and coal; little lines branched back from the corners, the effects of sun and wind against his face when he rode. He smelled like sweat, and cigarettes, and something she couldn’t place that left her short of breath.
“Yeah,” he said, chuckling. “Your name.”
Her mother would keel over dead if she knew she gave her name to a man like this. Maybe that was why she said, “Maggie,” and kicked her chin up so she could meet his dark gaze.
“Maggie.” The way he said her name conjured images of all things chocolatey, velvety, sugary. Not just her name, but something dark, and sweet, and hot. Like she was something he wanted.
She shivered again, a hard shudder that gripped tight at the back of her neck. She had to wet her lips before she could speak. His eyes followed the movement of her tongue. “Yeah. Maggie.”
The moment spun out, the afternoon stalled around them. The traffic on the street, the beer abandoned a few steps away, Rachel, her promise to be home for dinner – all of it fell away, and it was just her, and this man named Ghost, and her pounding heart.
“Alright, Maggie,” he said, voice low and rough. He braced a hand on the wall beside her. The other one, to her shock, landed on her hip. He grinned when he felt her jump. “Here’s the thing. It was real damn stupid of you to ask me to buy you beer.”
She couldn’t let him see that she was afraid; she was too ashamed to. “Why?” she asked. “Are you an undercover cop or something?”
He snorted, and it stirred her hair against the sides of her face. “Nah, sweetheart. Way worse than that. Didn’t your mama ever tell you not to try and pet stray dogs?”
“My mama tells me lots of things, so many I tune her out most of the time. And I wasn’t trying to pet you, if you’ll recall. I just wanted some beer.”
He smiled again, and this time there was a spark of real amusement in his eyes. “Yeah, and I got your beer. But for what? Twelve bucks? You thought that was enough?”
She bristled, lifting away from the wall, which – bad idea – brought them even closer together. She wasn’t going to back off, though. “It took you less than five minutes. It wasn’t a job worth more than twelve dollars.”
He clucked. “Nah, see, that I don’t agree with.”
She sighed, fear and frustration mounting in equal parts. “That’s all the money I’m carrying. And no, I don’t have an ATM card.”
“Hmm. That’s too bad.” He made a considering face.
“You can keep the beer if you want. Just…”
His eyes snapped back to hers. “Just what?”
Maybe if she’d paid more attention to Rachel, she’d know how to flirt her way out of this. As it was, her only weapons were stubbornness, firmness…and her last resort. A request. “Just let me go,” she said with a defeated exhale. “Please. I’m sorry I bothered you.”
“One thing first,” he said. Then he ducked his head and kissed her.
It was her first kiss. It was her first kiss, and it was with an angry outlaw who smelled like smoke.
His mouth was hot, his tongue slick when it pressed for entry between her lips.
This wasn’t the tentative peck of a boy her own age. This was a full-on assault. And she was blindsided by the sensations, by the way he just took what he wanted; helpless to resist, she opened her mouth and let him in. And God. His tongue slid against hers. He nipped at the soft flesh of her lower lip. She felt the scrape of his stubble, the rough catch in his breath. His hand slipped up beneath the hem of her shirt and pressed boldly across her stomach, the calluses on his fingers rough against her skin.
It went on and on, drugging and deep. And then he pulled back, breathing hard through his mouth. Maggie was dizzy and lightheaded, her heart caught somewhere high in her throat.
He kissed the edge of her jaw, the sensitive place just below her ear. “You better be careful, little girl,” he murmured. “The next guy’s gonna want more than that.”
He withdrew, leaving her cold and rattled in his wake. His expression was smug as he stepped back, his eyes raking her head to toe, mentally undressing her.
“You–” he started, and tripped over the bags he’d left behind him.
He kept his footing, but the heel of his boot tore the thin plastic of the drugstore bag he’d been carrying when she first saw him. The contents spilled out onto the dirty concrete: Children’s Tylenol, Children’s Motrin, and a generic brand of brightly colored kid’s fever reducer; a bag of Skittles; Pepto-Bismol.
She stared at the bottles as her heartrate slowed, trying to make sense of his purchases. He didn’t look like the kind of guy who had trouble swallowing aspirin. No, this was for a child. Maybe his child. Probably his child.
As she watched, his entire demeanor changed. “Aw, fuck,” he muttered, scrubbing a hand back through his hair. He crouched down and started repacking the bottles with fast, hurried movements, fumbling in his haste. The bag had lost all integrity, though, and they spilled back out. “Fuck,” he hissed again. “Just fuck me. Fucking…” He gathered them up in his arms and surged to his feet.
There was color in his cheeks, and she didn’t think it had anything to do with their kiss. He ducked his head, held his purchases tight to his chest, and hurried away from her without looking back.
Maggie watched him go, dumbfounded, his shoulders tense and drawn in, his strides quick and uneven. Gone was the swaggering young man who’d first spotted her on the sidewalk. The frantic guy in his place seemed a different person entirely.
The torn bag flapped, and rolled, and set off across the parking lot like an errant leaf. The other bag rustled noisily, held in place by its contents.
When her legs felt steady enough, Maggie stepped away from the wall and bent over the Hiram’s bag. Inside was a six-pack of Bud Light, a bottle of Jack, and the change from the twenty she’d given him.
And Ghost…he was a ghost. Disappeared around the corner.