Jessie Cooke grew up in a small country town, so for a long while, the smells of the city were alien to her. The chaotic noises and fragrances of her new surroundings kept her on edge and made it hard for her to sleep. She would lie awake at night and crave the smells of her “home.” Her heart and soul ached for the aroma of earthy loam in the air and fragrances that spring brought with new growth, or the heady warning in the air when rain was on the horizon. She missed the quiet nights, filled with nothing but the sounds of insects chirping and frogs croaking. In the city, she started at the sound of every blaring siren, racing engine, or ringing bell of a cable car. In the city, the smells of the pungent fumes that belched from long lines of cars and busses consumed everything and for quite some time, she thought she’d never grow accustomed to any of it. The lack of sleep and the ache inside of her for the comforts of home affected the very work she’d moved to the city to do. Jessie’s editor, her publisher, and her agent all lived and worked in the city. They were the ones who had encouraged her to move “closer to the action” but as the lonely days turned into weeks and then months, Jessie became more certain that she’d made a mistake. She was the country mouse in a city full of lions…or so she thought.
Jessie had been in San Francisco for six months the day she walked toward her editor’s office with every intention of telling her that she was finished. She was going “home,” whether any of them liked it or not, and if she had to change the way she did business, she’d figure it out when she got there. But as she walked the twelve blocks from her apartment to the editor’s office, she stumbled upon something that would change the way she thought, the way she worked, and even the way she viewed the city.
Jessie was about a block from her editor’s office when she saw five big, muscular men in leather vests sitting in a circle in the street. They all sat astride big, shiny Harley Davidsons and the sun glinted off all the chrome, as well as the ink that colored their arms and shoulders. They wore jeans, leather boots, and white t-shirts underneath the leather vests. They wore black bandannas tied around their heads, and a few of them had long hair that spilled out across their broad shoulders and flowed down their backs. There was a small group of people on the sidewalk watching them, and Jessie’s curiosity was piqued. She quietly took a spot in the crowd and as she focused on the big, intimidating men sitting with their arms crossed in a circle, she almost missed the scene that was happening across the street. There were two more bikers, these two off their bikes and on the ground with one of their knees in the backs of two men they had on the ground.
Jessie was a petite woman, so it was easy for her to make her way to the front of the growing crowd just as a car drove up. The tires squealed and the brakes smoked as it locked up and a man jumped out. He was dressed in a suit and tie and well-groomed, but his eyes were swollen and red, almost as if he’d been crying. As soon as he was out of the car, a woman, who Jessie hadn’t noticed before, suddenly stood up from within the circle of bikers. One of the men stepped off his bike and let the man through and Jessie watched as the man in the suit caught her in his arms and hugged her tightly. When he let her go, he bent down and scooped up a child, a little girl who couldn’t have been over five or six years old. The little girl hugged him, and Jessie could hear her crying and calling him “Daddy.” With the little girl still wrapped tightly around his neck, the man walked closer to one of the bikers on the side nearest where Jessie stood. She heard the man in the suit ask:
“Are you Radar?”
The biker slid off his bike. Jessie couldn’t see the biker’s face, but she could see how big he was. He had to be at least six-foot-six and his shoulders seemed as broad as she was tall. Light brown hair that looked surprisingly healthy and soft for a biker flowed out of the back of his bandanna and lay against his vest, almost to his waist. “Yep” was all the biker said. His voice was deep and gravelly, so when he turned to the side to look at one of his “brothers,” Jessie was surprised to see he couldn’t be much older than her twenty-five years at that time.
“Thank you!” the man said, hugging the child again and letting a tear flow freely down his face. He held out his free hand and used it to grasp the one the biker had held out. The two men shook, and the man repeated his thanks at least a dozen more times. Seconds later, chaos took over as police cars began to drive up and stop. Jessie was pushed back along with the rest of the crowd as the police cordoned off the area, but a spark of something was already growing inside her core, and forgetting everything else, she’d gone home that day, determined to find out what had happened.
For the next three days, she watched the news, combed the internet, and even kept her eyes on the printed papers, which had lost her interest years before. She ate, drank, and slept the story. To Jessie it was not only a true American story, but it was a turning point in her life. The little girl had been snatched in a store a few blocks away by one of the men. The other had been waiting in the SUV out front. When the mother ran out screaming, the bikers, who had been having lunch across the street, chased the two men down, no questions asked. Once they had the men subdued, one of them went to pick up the mother and while the two sat on the would-be kidnappers, the rest of them protected mother and child while awaiting the police. Jessie ultimately discovered that the two men were human traffickers and they were on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. The spark Jessie had felt that day had grown into a fire that began to consume her night and day. It was a story she didn’t only want to write; it was one that she felt like she had to.
She became borderline obsessed with finding out everything there was to know about bikers and motorcycle clubs, and while she was doing that, the city had slowly grown on her. Those sounds and smells that had tormented her for months suddenly became comforting to her. The growling engines and screaming sirens lulled her to sleep, and the hustle and bustle of the city outside her apartment window served as a symphony in the background when she sat down at her computer. As she became immersed in a world that walked a tightrope between fantasy and reality, a world of men whose reputation for being less than perfect only served to make them more appealing as human beings, Jessie learned to love her own life…on her own, in the city where Tony Bennett had once left his heart. Ten years later, as she walked to the café where she now sat waiting for her friend, she’d soaked up the sounds and smells of her life almost euphorically.
The exterior of Jessie’s favorite little café offered nothing inviting, but the interior was just the opposite. It was warm and cozy and when the door closed behind her it was as if the city disappeared. The tourists poured into the big-name coffee shops that sat on every corner of the city, but this café, the one that sat almost despondently amid the skyscrapers downtown, this one was just for the locals. Jessie had ordered her coffee and taken it out to the patio to wait for her friend. There she sat at a bistro table, underneath a colorful umbrella, overlooking a fountain that bubbled so peacefully that one might never know they were mere steps from one of the busiest financial districts in the world.
Jessie took a sip of her espresso and glanced through the glass walls of the café, just in time to see her friend Suzy walk through the front door. A few of the regulars looked up and smiled at her and Suzy smiled back while approaching the counter. Alex, the owner of the café, had been there to greet Jessie when she came in, and he was there to greet Suzy as well. He greeted everyone by name, and if it were someone’s first time there, he’d ask for their name and never forget it if they returned, no matter how much time passed in between.
Alex always had a smile on his face. He wasn’t a classically handsome man. His eyes were wide-set and his nose a bit long. But when Alex smiled it was almost like he became the smile. Everything about him beamed, and to say it was a happy smile was an understatement. Alex’s smile emitted pure, unadulterated joy, and no matter what kind of day Jessie was having, that smile never failed to remind Jessie just how happy she was to be alive.
Suzy was smiling when she walked out onto the patio carrying her usual, a café mocha and one of Alex’s homemade madeleines. “Hey!” she said to Jessie as she set the cup and plate with the cookie on it down on the table. Jessie stood up and the two old friends hugged tightly. “Welcome home.”
Jessie smiled and as they sat down, she said, “It’s good to be back.”
“But the trip was good? You had fun?”
Jessie had needed the vacation, and Suzy had heartily encouraged her to take it. Jessie was glad that she had. “It was great. The birthday party was fun and almost all the aunts and uncles and cousins were there. I ate too much, drank too much, and spent my last day at home in a sugar coma, but I loved every minute of it.”
“Well, I’m glad you had fun. Lord knows you work too much, and you needed that. But now I’m glad you’re back. I need you. I’m still stuck.”
“Still?” Jessie and Suzy were both writers. For most of the past decade, Jessie had written predominately MC romance books, most of them about one club in particular. Her obsession had begun the day she’d witnessed a little girl being saved by a group most people looked at as outsiders, and it had only grown exponentially since.
Suzy typically preferred to write less about romance, and more about the paranormal, ghosts and werewolves, and all the other things that went bump in the night. But although their genres were different, the two friends occasionally depended on each other to get through a rough bout of writer’s block. Suzy had been trying to come up with a plot for a new story before Jessie left to go home for her father’s birthday party two weeks before, so she was surprised to hear that her friend hadn’t made much, if any progress while she was gone.
“I know,” Suzy said, pouting slightly. “Maybe I’ve just got nothing left up there.” She tapped her forehead with her finger.
Jessie smiled and said, “You have plenty left. But if you want my help…”
“If I want your help? I’ll pay for it. No! I’ll put your name in the acknowledgements! No! Acknowledgements, front cover, and I’ll split royalties with you. Please help.” Suzy stuck out her bottom lip and batted her eyelashes dramatically.
Jessie laughed. “Maybe you should have been an actress rather than a writer,” she said, jokingly.
“Maybe,” Suzy said, sadly. “This writing gig sure hasn’t been working for me lately.”
“It’s just temporary,” Jessie said, encouragingly. “Maybe you just need to shake up your genre a bit. I was stuck before I found my niche. I thought it was the move, this place…but really, I just hadn’t found my comfort zone yet. Maybe you should really shake it up and do something crazy like romance, or even erotica.”
Suzy laughed and said, “My own lack of a love life makes me a poor candidate for writing erotica.”
Laughing and shaking her head Jessie said, “Please, what happened to…Gene?” When Jessie left on vacation, Suzy had just started dating a man ten years her junior. She’d told Jessie that he “might be the one.” He was the third man that year that she’d said that about however, so Jessie wasn’t too surprised when Suzy rolled her eyes and said:
“Narcissist. Now, back to the books…”
Jessie knew Suzy would fill her in on the rest when she was ready, so she let it go for the time being and instead she said, “I was serious about you doing something really different. Sometimes it’s a good way to live out your own fantasies. I mean really, if you had to be experiencing great sex to write about it, I’d be in big trouble.” Jessie’s books were about bikers, so sex was just a natural part of them. She had no hang-ups about writing about sex, but her own life was far from the wild stories that came out of her imagination and became vividly realistic ones in black and white.
With a wicked smile Suzy said, “Well, if you did want some practice…you should come to Delia’s party with me this evening. Mack will be there.”
This time Jessie threw her head back and laughed out loud. Mack Miller was a big, sexy biker who’d had a thing for Jessie since his mother Delia first introduced them ten years before. Delia owned the building that Jessie’s apartment was in, but over the years she’d become much more than a landlord to Jessie; they’d become friends, and Jessie had even become the older woman’s confidante. Suzy knew Delia because of a piece she’d written on a charity the matriarch was running a couple of years before Jessie arrived in San Francisco, when Suzy had been working for a small paper there. Through Delia the two women had become fast friends, and they’d also both come to know Delia’s big, crazy, wild extended family as well.
Jessie wouldn’t even try to deny she found Mack attractive. She’d have to be blind not to see the way the man oozed with sexuality. He was tall, dark, and has a body that looks like it was sculpted out of stone. But…he was affiliated with a motorcycle club; one that was even shadier than the ones she wrote about in her novels. When she’d first met Mack, she’d enjoyed getting an insider’s take on everything MC…but it wasn’t long before their brainstorming sessions had turned into Jessie spending less time taking notes, and more time watching where Mack’s hands were every second, and then she caught herself falling for him, letting her guard down one too many times, and she knew it had to stop. He was a fun and interesting enough person to know, practically a god to look at…but not relationship material in the least. Suzy teased her about that, telling her that “not every hookup has to be about a future.” But no matter how long she lived in the city, or how passionately she wrote about it, Jessie just wasn’t a “hookup with a biker” kind of girl, and she was sure Mack Miller wasn’t a “settle for one woman” kind of guy.
“If you’re trying to sell me on Delia’s party, ‘Mack will be there’ is not the way to do it,” she told her friend with a smile.
“If nothing else, he’s easy on the eyes.”
“More than easy,” Jessie said with a chuckle. Then clearing her throat and growing somewhat serious she said, “I was planning on going to the party anyways though; I’d like it if we can go together. You can run interference with Mack for me.” Suzy laughed and shook her head and Jessie went on, the merriment fading from her eyes again, “Delia sent me an invitation weeks ago and made me swear I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Same here,” Suzy said. She took another sip of her coffee and stared off into the bubbling fountain for several seconds. When she looked back at Jessie there was a renewed spark in her hazel eyes. “You know, Delia has often joked about the two of us collaborating on a book, about her life…what if we did it about the whole family?”
“Oh wow,” Jessie said, “that would be a hell of a story. You don’t think any of them would object?”
Suzy laughed. “I don’t know a single Miller or O’Conner who are embarrassed or ashamed of their lifestyles, all the way from Delia down to Warren.”
The wheels in Jessie’s head were turning. She’d actually used the Miller/O’Conner personalities to spice up some of the characters in her books in the past, but just bits and pieces of them here and there. She began to wonder aloud… “Do you think the readers could handle it? I mean, you don’t think they’d be so offended they wouldn’t read past the first few chapters?”
“Of course, some of them will be,” Suzy said. “But I’ll bet more than would be willing to admit it would love it. It might be their dirty little secret, but they’ll read it, and wish they knew the family the way we do.”
Jessie had to admit that she was intrigued by the idea. She and Suzy had been talking about collaborating on a book for years, and there was no other subject the two women had more in common than Delia Miller’s mess of a family. Jessie was between novels, and Suzy was having a hard time getting started on her next one…maybe it was time. Delia’s family was a mess, but they were an entertaining one for sure. Their lives would shock some of their readers, but Jessie thought Suzy was right, and that it would enthrall others. Delia had spent many an hour over a bottle or three of wine, telling the two women the story of her life, and they’d attended enough parties, fundraisers, family reunions, and holiday get-togethers to have seen for themselves that the matriarch hadn’t been kidding. With the smile on her face blooming as quickly as the ideas in her head, Jessie looked back at her friend and said:
“Why not? Let’s do it.”
Suzy clapped her hands together. “Yay! This is going to be so much fun!”
“When we interview them though, you get Mack,” Jessie said with a giggle.
Suzy winked at her friend. “I’ve been waiting for someone to say that to me for years.”