Here’s the first chapter of the second installment of the Signal Bend Series, Behold the Stars, which continues Lilli and Isaac’s story. (SPOILERS for Move the Sun, Book One in the series.)
Isaac held the heavy bag while Lilli punched and kicked. She was doing well, her blows powerful and accurate. She was uncharacteristically leading with her left, since she was still wearing a brace on her right hand, having broken it a couple of months ago in a fight with an old nemesis—a fight that had almost cost her life. It had been just more than two weeks since she’d gotten the cast off, but Lilli worked hard to be strong and fit, and she’d hadn’t been able to tolerate any more “recuperation” time. Isaac had barely gotten her to agree to work out with him so he could be there if she hurt herself. In fact, that had been quite a battle, and he’d had to use his position as club President, setting terms. It hadn’t gone over well, but they’d gotten past it, and she’d finally agreed.
The clubhouse of the Night Horde Motorcycle Club was the only place remotely resembling a gym within probably 50 miles of Signal Bend, Missouri. For a variety of reasons, Lilli had been hesitant to work out in the clubhouse, or even visit, for that matter, but things were different now. She was officially his old lady. She’d even moved in with him after she’d gotten out of the hospital. And she’d agreed to marry him. Someday. When they could get the town safe again.
Signal Bend was one of those dying rural towns that peppered the Midwest. Too remote to be served and protected by the traditional business and legal apparatus, not remote enough to survive the commercial siphoning from exurban middle class strip-mall sprawl. The town had been starving to death until some of the townspeople started to cook meth. Now the meth trade was keeping the rest of the town alive. Isaac didn’t want that crap in his town, but there was no other way to keep the lights on. So the Horde worked with the cookers to get their product out of Signal Bend and into the cities to the northeast and southwest—St. Louis and Tulsa. The whole I-44 corridor was their turf.
Lawrence Ellis, a major player from Chicago, was trying to unseat the Horde and take over Signal Bend for his own production. He was setting up to make his move soon—any day now, probably. Until the Horde could deal with Ellis and the Northside Knights, the crew from St. Louis that was doing his bidding, Isaac and Lilli couldn’t seriously contemplate settling their personal life.
Isaac would be 40 in a few months, and he’d never thought he’d have or even want a family beyond the Horde. He’d grown up in a hard home. Not a home at all. An abusive father, a suicide mother, a runaway sister. Until he met Lilli, he’d expected to live his life alone in the old farmhouse he’d grown up in. Now, though, he wanted it all—wife and children, a home, warm and full. He needed it. He hated that Lilli wanted to wait. He understood it, but he hated it. But she was with him, and for now that was enough. The rest would come in time. He had to believe that was true.
She backed off the bag and put her hands on her hips, her chest heaving. “Want to spar?”
That surprised him. She was ex-Army and well trained in hand-to-hand combat and self-defense, but he had ten inches and more than 150 pounds on her, and he had experience of his own. They’d never sparred before. “Nah, Sport. I don’t want to hurt you.”
She laughed, a saucy light in her bright grey eyes. “Oh, dude. That’s a challenge if ever I heard one. You think you can hurt me?”
“You think you’re 100%?” He turned a meaningful look to her braced hand.
“Close enough. Come on, biker man, you chicken?”
He didn’t want to hurt her. Still vivid in his memory, and in his dreams, was the image of her lying pale and weak in a hospital bed, depleted of more than half her blood, comatose for days. It hadn’t even been three months since then. But he couldn’t deny her. She was standing there in her tiny little black spandex shorts and her tight little bright green top, showing a lot of beautiful, muscled belly and basically all of her sleek, strong legs. Her grin was wide, and tendrils of her long, dark hair clung to her damp neck. She was about as sexy as she could be without being totally naked and writhing under him.
Which presented its own set of problems, and Isaac looked over to the side wall, the top half of which was all windows. The weight room had been the scheduling office when the clubhouse had been Signal Bend Construction, run by the Night Horde, and the windows looked into the main room, what was now known as the Hall. At the moment, just about everyone in the Hall was taking in the show. There was something for everyone: Lilli in her tiny workout clothes, Isaac bare-chested, wearing only a pair of black sweats. The Horde were trying to be circumspect about it, trying not to ogle the boss’s old lady so obviously as to be disrespectful. Not doing a great job of it, but at least trying. The girls, though, were standing right at the window, staring at him. A couple even had their hands on their hearts.
Lilli was the jealous type. Not crazy jealous, but territorial—quite a lot like he was, actually, though a bit slower to violence. She followed his glance to the window and saw their audience. With a smug, assertive grin, she walked up to him, reached up over his shoulder, grabbed his braid, and pulled his head to hers. He knew what she was up to, and as soon as she’d gotten close enough, he put his hands on her hips and pulled her against him.
When their lips met, and her tongue pushed into his mouth, Isaac felt the same electric bolt of desire he always felt, audience or not. He slid his hands over her ass, completely covering her shorts. Without thinking of anything more than her, her body so close to his, the perfect, hot scent of her sweat, he curled his fingers under the snug hems circling the tops of her thighs. He growled, deep in his chest.
She released her hold on his braid and pulled back from the kiss with a wicked grin. Isaac looked over to the window and saw that the women were moving on. The guys, though, were being more obvious—at least until they saw Isaac seeing them.
Isaac laughed. “Marking your territory, Sport?” He’d called her Sport since he first met her, when she wouldn’t tell him her name. It had stuck. The first thing he’d seen of her was her ’68 Camaro Super Sport.
“Call it serving notice. I figure you’ve banged all the women out there, right?”
He was more discerning than that. “Gimme some credit—not all of them. And none of them since I met you.”
She nodded. “I know. Just making sure they know you’re off the menu.” She swept her hand down the length of his bare arm. “So, we gonna fight, or what?”
The boxing ring was out in what had been the loading bays. They’d definitely have an audience out there. He could think of ten good reasons right off the top of his head that the two of them sparring was a bad idea. But he could see the resolve in her eyes. “Lilli, you sure about this?”
She slid a hand into the waistbands of his sweats and boxer briefs. The feel of her fingers so temptingly low on his belly made his heart race. “Isaac, it’s just a spar. We’re not going to be trying to kill each other. Think of it as foreplay.”
That was fair. Their sex got pretty rough. “Okay, baby. We’re careful, though. Right?”
She just smirked and sauntered out of the weight room. He followed her to the ring. So did everybody else, once they understood what was afoot. Isaac heard them making bets. The Night Horde MC was a small club, and their outlaw streak was usually fairly low-key—their involvement in the meth trade notwithstanding—but they were a rowdy bunch, and any prospect of violence, recreational or otherwise, got their blood up. Isaac knew that the chance to openly watch Lilli in the ring was only adding to the enthusiasm. Len and Victor, the two loosest cannons in the club, were calling the bets, amping things up. Len, the club Sergeant at Arms, was calling odds in Lilli’s favor, with a sardonic eyebrow raised to Isaac. When Lilli heard him, she turned and blew him a kiss. Len caught it and planted it on his cheek. Isaac rolled his eyes. Lilli was not remotely girly, but she knew how to use everything she had going for her, brains or body, whichever worked best. Both at the same time, most often.
Showdown, Isaac’s VP, stayed back a bit, arms crossed. Isaac met his eyes. Show was the steadiest thinker. Isaac’s chief advisor and confidant, he knew more than anyone else in the club what was in his President’s head. So he knew Isaac’s misgivings about getting in the ring with Lilli.
Lilli climbed between the ropes straightaway, but Isaac paused for a second, asking himself if he was really going to throw punches at his woman. The woman he’d thought would die, only a few weeks ago.
The one who was bouncing in the middle of the ring, the dare gleaming in her eyes.
Okay, Sport. Okay. He climbed in.
He knew if he really punched her, he’d really hurt her, but he needn’t have worried. He started out pulling his punches, but within in a couple of minutes he was actually trying to make contact. He couldn’t. They were fighting two different spars. She was lithe and quick, and he couldn’t catch her. He was a brawler; his way was to overpower. She was doing some kind of martial arts dance he couldn’t track. She dodged and feinted and ducked and dived, always bouncing, always moving. Mostly, she played defense, letting him swing and miss. Twice, she kicked him—or, rather, she came in with a kick and stopped at the last second, simply touching her foot to his chest or back and then pulling away before he could grab her.
“Are you trying, love?”
Their spectators hooted at that. Bart, the club Intelligence Officer and the youngest patch, called out, “Oh, snap!” Isaac spared an angry glance his way, and Bart took a step back. Good. Shithead.
Despite his worry about her, he was starting to get a little pissed. “Don’t goad me, baby. I can make sure you pay.” He saw her getting cocky, losing a sliver of that intense focus. When she dropped her guard, he was ready, and he came in with a jab to her midsection. He’d meant to pull, but by then he only had half an idea he’d connect, and he wasn’t being as careful as he wanted to be. He connected, nearly full power, and sent her to the mat on her back, breathless. The crowd groaned.
“Shit! Sport, I’m sorry. You okay?”
She kipped up to her feet—impressing the hell out of him and everyone watching—and grinned. “That’s what I’m talking about! Let’s do this!”
The pace picked up a lot then. When she connected after that, there was some pop behind it, and Isaac was taking more of a beating than he wanted to let on. She never let her guard down again, and he never got another good swing in. Finally, she ended the fight by sweeping his feet out from under him after he’d missed with a hook. The crowd erupted when he landed on his back. He stayed down, not because he couldn’t get up, but because the whole encounter had him about nuts, teetering wildly between concern and competition. She was strong and skilled and obviously could more than hold her own, but the mere thought of hurting her was more than he could deal with.
“Giving up, love?” She bounced over to him, keeping just out of reach of his hands and feet. Even now, even when he was on his back, she was vigilant. The woman had focus.
“What can I say? You bested me, Sport.” He sat up and held out his hand to her. She gave him a distrusting look, and he turned his palm up. “No trick, baby. You won.” She took his hand and he came to his feet. When he was up, he grabbed her and pulled her close. Dripping sweat now, she smelled even better to him, like sex incarnate. “That was foreplay, right?” Gripping her head in his hands, he bent down and kissed the sass out of her, not stopping until she relaxed completely against him. The crowd exploded in howls, whistles, and cheers. He released her head and grabbed her hand. “Okay, folks, show’s over.” Bending to Lilli’s ear, he whispered. “We need to get to my office.”
With a laugh and a toss of her long, chestnut ponytail, she slid between the ropes and jumped to the floor. Badger, one of the new Prospects, handed her a towel. When Isaac landed behind her, he took a towel, then grabbed Lilli’s hand again and pulled her out of the bays and down the hall to his office, ignoring everybody else. His hand on the small of her back, he sent her into the dark, windowless room ahead of him, then locked the door behind them and flipped the switch that turned on the lamp on the bookcase. She was on him as soon as she turned around, and they kissed fiercely for several brilliant seconds, but then he held her off. They had some air to clear first.
“What was that about, Lilli?”
She looked honestly confused. “What do you mean? That was just some fun.”
“Not for me, no. And there was more to it than that. What’s up?” He’d been thinking about it the whole time they were dancing in the ring. She’d had a look about her—contentious, somehow. It had felt off to him. He brushed the damp strands of hair from her temples. God, she was beautiful. “What’s goin’ on, baby? Tell me.”
She huffed and backed away, walking across the room to sit on the couch. “I don’t know. I guess I need you to see that I can take care of myself again. I don’t need a bodyguard, Isaac. You haven’t been hearing me, so I wanted you to see it instead, I guess.”
Ah. Isaac went over and sat next to her, laying his hand on her thigh. “Have I been hovering?” He knew the answer. He’d had a hard time leaving her since their confrontation with Ray Hobson. When he’d had no choice but to go, he’d left one of the other patches, or a Prospect, with her. She’d hated that. But she was recovering from serious injury. She’d almost died. And he needed to keep her safe. It was his fault she’d been hurt in the first place.
She had a point. He knew she did. He understood. But she needed to understand him, too. “Okay. Fair enough. You can take care of yourself. I get it. I’ll back off some. But you have to understand me, Lilli. You don’t know what it was like to sit next to that bed, with you so still and pale, not knowing if you’d ever be with me again. I can’t lose you, Sport. Shit’s about to get insane around here, and I have to keep you safe.”
The look she gave him was frustrated, but indulgent. With a little laugh, she laid her hand on his. “You can’t keep me safe, Isaac. Especially not when things get insane. You know what I can do. You know the skills I have. I can handle myself.”
“Hobson got the better of you, Lilli. He almost killed you.” As soon as he said it, he regretted it. Lilli was suddenly all cold fury. And he knew it was a shitty thing to say. She’d been racked with self-doubt when she’d come out of the coma and realized how close she’d come to failing at her mission to kill Hobson. It had been Isaac who’d killed him, who’d stopped him from torturing her while she bled out. She’d hated that she’d had to be rescued and that someone else—even Isaac—had completed her job. He’d talked her down from that ledge. And now here he was dangling her off it himself. In the months they’d been together, Isaac thought that this was the first time he’d actively hurt her, said something aimed at a weakness. And he’d gone for a very tender spot. What an asshole.
She was rigid with anger now, her arms crossed and her hands curled into fists. But she hadn’t gotten up from the couch yet. He squeezed her thigh and felt her muscles go hard at the touch. “I’m sorry, Lilli. That was a shitty thing to say. I didn’t mean it.”
“Yeah, you did. And fuck you.” Now she got up. She grabbed her bag from the floor by the desk and turned around. “Is there someplace else I can change, or do I have to use the nasty bathroom?” She’d changed into her workout clothes right here in his office. He’d changed with her. If she wouldn’t change in front of him now—that was bad. That was her looking for distance he didn’t want her to have.
He stood and went to her. She didn’t move away, but she wouldn’t look at him, and the vibe she was giving off was almost toxic. “Please don’t, Lilli. Stay here. With me. I really am sorry. I’ll back off. I will.” He put his hands on her stiff upper arms, and she finally turned her eyes to his. They were shiny with almost-tears. Lilli wasn’t quick to cry, so he knew how deeply his words had cut. Goddammit, he was such a dick.
“I need to be strong, Isaac. Don’t try to take that away from me. I won’t let you, and it’ll ruin us.”
“You are strong, Sport. Jesus, you’re like a shield-maiden, or a Valkyrie or something. I don’t want you to be anything less than you are.” He swallowed down a lump that had begun to grow in his throat. “You make me stronger. I need you with me. It scares me to think of something happening to you.”
She sighed. “You know all your Norse mythology and chess references make you a nerd, right? Deep down under all that muscle, ink, and leather, you’re a huge nerd.” She relaxed her arms and put her hands on his bare chest, curling her fingers into the hair there. “I’m afraid for you, too, you know. It’s a two-way deal between us.”
Relieved that the tension had broken between them, Isaac leaned down to kiss her forehead. “I know. We need to take care of each other.”
“We need to trust each other, love. That’s what we need.” She pushed away and opened her bag. “Now, though, I want to change so we can talk to your guys.” She had an idea for a way to deal with Ellis, and he was calling in the officers so she could explain it to them.
She pulled her clothes out of the duffel and stripped off her workout clothes. As she changed back into street clothes, so did he. So much for sparring being foreplay. He’d screwed that one up royally. He’d have to make it up to her later.