Book: Tough and Tender (Bad Boy Romance Box Set)





Biking along the Florida Panhandle with Jesse is one of the best times I remember having in years. I’m feeling carefree, snuggled close behind him on the bike with the hot sun on my legs and the wind in my hair. The salty ocean air smells fresh and crisp. With every mile, the stress of the past few days melts away more and more.

Being on a bike is peaceful, and peace isn’t something I’ve had much of in my life, especially lately. I can understand why bikers love riding so much.

I wrap my arms tighter around Jesse’s waist. He turns slightly and grins back at me. I long to run my hands up and down the hard abs on his chest to feel the smooth muscles I know are there. I resist the urge because I’m afraid he’ll let go of the handlebars or be so distracted that he’ll run off the road. At the speed we’re going, a wreck would be disastrous, if not fatal. 

I reach up to touch the earrings to make sure they’re still on my ears. His sweet, impulsive gesture to buy them for me brought tears to my eyes, but I didn’t let him see. I made sure to blink the tears back before he noticed.

He would probably think I was being silly or overly sentimental. Emotions that most men can’t tolerate in women, especially a tough biker like Jesse. I’m too embarrassed to tell him that the earrings were the first gift a man has ever bought me. I’ll keep that little secret to myself. 

Taking care of an addict mother most of my life didn’t leave me much free time for fun or dating. After Ty left home, my mom always needed me for something: putting her to bed when she was wasted, or staying up all night babysitting her because I was afraid she would accidentally set the house on fire if I fell asleep.

Many mornings I dragged myself to high school with little to no sleep the night before. If my teachers suspected anything was wrong with my home life, they never said a word about it.

I didn’t date at all in high school, and in the years since, I haven’t been on more than a handful of casual dates. Even then, I was never foolish enough to bring the men home to meet my mother. In a small country town, word gets around fast about drug addicts. Everyone knows who they are.

Once the guys realized my situation, they always dumped me without a second thought. I can’t blame them. I split too, once I finally worked up the courage to go.

Now there’s Jesse, and I’m afraid to let my mind wander further into the future than this week. Last night was filled with incredible, mind-blowing sex. Something that, if I’m honest with myself, probably meant a whole lot more to me than to him.

I’m smart enough to know good sex doesn’t mean we are meant to be together forever. Believing we have a future beyond bike week would be idiotic and immature on my part.

So I can’t let myself think about it.

There has been enough heartache in my life from my own family. I can’t afford to let a man break my heart too, though it’s growing increasingly hard to keep my feelings for Jesse tamped down.

Everything he does ramps them up a little more. First protecting me from my brother, then taking me in when I was wandering the streets in the middle of the night, and now buying me earrings. Not to mention the hot sex. My mind keeps going back to that.

Jesse takes a hand off the handlebars and casually places it on my leg.

“Keep your hands on the wheel, buddy!” I say into his ear before placing a quick kiss there, too. “It scares me when you take your hands off the handlebars.”

“If you want me to stop touching your legs, you should wear jeans,” he says back. “Otherwise I can’t resist. And I can drive just fine with no hands. See?”

He lifts both hands and holds them high up into the air.

“Stop! Oh my God, don’t do that,” I scream, closing my eyes and tucking my head against his back so I can’t see if we’re about to crash.

I feel the rumble of his laughter through his shirt.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Are your hands still up?” I whisper.

“No, you can look now.”

I don’t move my head from his back. “Actually, this feels pretty comfy right here.”

“If you keep rubbing up against me like that, I’m going to have to pull off the road and take you behind a sand dune,” he warns.

“And what would happen behind this sand dune?” I ask innocently.

“I would rather show than tell,” he replies.

“Promises, promises.”

My stomach growls loudly, reminding me it has been hours since breakfast.

“How much further before we get to Destin?” I ask.

“Not too much longer,” he says. “I know of a little place right on the water by the harbor where we can stop for lunch. The fishermen sell their fresh fish to the restaurants there every day.”

“Sounds fantastic. I haven’t eaten fresh seafood in forever.”

Twenty minutes later, we’re seated at a table on an outdoor patio overlooking the Destin Harbor. From where we’re sitting, we can see the fishing boats pulling up with their catch of the day. Large brown pelicans and sea gulls perch on the tall wooden poles lining the boat docks at the edge of the water. When the boats come closer, they all stand up and wait patiently for the fishermen to clean the fish and throw them scraps.

Jesse starts to reach for my hand across the table, then suddenly moves around and pulls up a chair close beside me.

I laugh. “What are you doing? Something wrong with that side of the table?”

“Yeah,” he says. “You’re on this side and too far away. I want to be closer.”

He slides a hand down the inside of my leg and scoots my chair over toward him. “Now, that’s much better. I like keeping my hands on my girl.”

There’s that term again. My girl. I like it.

The waitress takes our drink order and hands us menus with ten handwritten items.

“Any suggestions?” I ask Jesse when she walks away.

“Not the chicken.”

After we order two mixed seafood platters, I slip off to the restroom to freshen up. When I reach into my purse for my lip gloss, I notice right off that my cell phone isn’t where it should be. I unzip all of the extra pockets of the purse in a panic and check those, too. No phone anywhere.

Darn it! I’m always so careful to keep up with my phone and to make sure it stays fully charged. My heart beats fast at the thought of losing it.

Ty is always adamant that I keep the phone turned on at all times in case he needs me to do something for the club. Plus, my cell phone is the only way my mother knows how to get in touch with me.

It takes me a full minute to calm down and remember that Ty doesn’t control me anymore, and it might be for the best if my mother can’t call me either.

Maybe this is a good thing.

Without my cell phone, I am completely cut off from my family. If they can’t reach me, they can’t hurt me.

I’m free.

At least until I find my phone.

Jesse stands up and politely pulls back my chair for me when I return to the table.

“Thank you,” I say, smiling up at him. “Men don’t pull out chairs for women much anymore. It’s nice.”

“My mom taught all of us boys manners. She said we needed to know how to be true Southern gentlemen. And we all know how, we just don’t always show it.” He looks sad at the thought of his mom. “I’m afraid she wouldn’t be very happy with her boys these days.”

I’m surprised by his comment. “Why do you say that?”

He shrugs. “Like most mothers, she wanted us to make something big of ourselves. Something besides running a motorcycle club, of course. She wouldn’t have considered that to be a real or honorable profession. My mom would have been very proud of Flint though.”

“Is that the man who looks just like you, only younger?”

He nods. “Flint is a lawyer. He worked in Atlanta for a couple of years and only came back home a few months ago. He’s back with the MC now and picks up freelance legal work on the side.”

I open two packets of sugar and pour them into my sweet tea. “What do the rest of you do?” I ask, stirring the sugar until it melts.

“Sam and I own a tattoo parlor. Sam does most of the work and I run the business side of things. He’s much more artistic than I am. Most of his clients are women, believe it or not. His specialty is tattoos in intimate places. The ladies don’t seem to mind letting him get the tools right there, up close and personal. Hell, sometimes I think they actually enjoy it.”

“Are you serious? Or are you pulling my leg?”

“I’m dead serious. Ask him yourself next time you see him. Just whatever you do, don’t agree to let him give you a tattoo.”

“Don’t worry,” I say adamantly. “I won’t. Especially not there. What about the rest of your crew?”

“The MC is involved in a few other ventures too. Nothing much worth talking about. We get by okay. It pays the bills.”

I’m afraid to ask and really don’t want to know what the Steel Infidels are involved in. For now, I like keeping my head in the sand where Jesse is concerned, and he obviously isn’t comfortable with telling me more.

“What about you?” he asks. “Any big plans for the future?”

I let out a long sigh.

“I wish. My mom is...sick, and I spent most of my time looking after her. It’s past time I figured out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I just don’t know where to start. I’ve been a caregiver for so long that I feel kind of lost not doing it.”

The mention of my mom reminds me of my lost phone. For some reason, I can’t stop worrying about it. Most likely because I’m so obsessive compulsive about constantly checking things that I never lose anything. It is still bothering me. I peek down under the table to see if it fell out of my purse and onto the floor.

“What are you looking for?” Jesse asks.

“My cell phone. I lost it. I always keep it in my purse and now I can’t find it. It must have fallen out somewhere along the way.”

“Damn! I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know what I would do if I lost my phone. I keep everything on there. Was there anything important on it?”

“Not really,” I say. “Phone numbers. Most of which I have memorized anyway. That’s about it. It wasn’t an expensive phone, so that’s not what I’m worried about. Not one of those fancy smartphones. My phone is the only way for Ty and Mom to reach me in an emergency. It kind of freaks me out to be cut off from everyone.”

He gives me a concerned look. “I thought you were going to stay away from your brother. Isn’t that what we agreed would be best for now? We talked about this.”

“I know,” I reluctantly say. “You’re right. Still, in case of a real emergency, I would want my mother to be able to call me.”

“I’m sure it will turn up somewhere. Maybe it fell out of your purse at the bar last night? We were in such a hurry to get out of there. I bet that’s what happened. I have a couple of extra prepaid cell phones back at the hotel. I’ll give you one of those to use until you can find your phone. At least you’ll have a phone if you need me for anything.”

“You’ve done enough for me already.”

“They’re cheap. I would feel much better knowing you have a phone, even if it is an ‘el cheapo’ prepaid phone. My crew misplaces their phones all the time so I’ve learned to keep extras on hand.”

I don’t bother telling Jesse that he doesn’t need to explain to me about burner phones. Nobody keeps extra prepaid phones around unless they’re making calls they don’t want traced back to them. The Liberators always kept extra burner phones, too. For their illegal activities. It’s good to know I picked up a few helpful hints while hanging around those jerks. I can’t help but wonder why Jesse needs the phones, too.

When the huge platters of seafood arrive, we look at each other wide-eyed and burst out laughing. There is enough fried fish, shrimp, and clams for ten people, not including the fries, coleslaw, and hushpuppies spilling off the plates.

“Why did we order so much food?” I ask. “There’s no way we can eat all of this.”

“You said you were starving,” he says. “Don’t you dare go telling me how you’re full after eating two bites. You need to put some meat on your bones. Besides, I know you’ve been skipping meals the past few days.”

I pop a fried shrimp into my mouth.

“Don’t worry. I’m not one of those kind of girls. I like to eat and I don’t mind admitting it. Luckily I’m a decent cook, too. I prefer baking to cooking though. Desserts, cakes, cookies.”

“That’s good to know, because I love curves in all the right places. Skinny women don’t do a thing for me.”  He points a fork at my plate. “So eat up and fill out those luscious curves some more.”

Forty-five minutes later, I give up trying to finish my plate of food. I’m amazed at how much food Jesse can pack in and still be so muscular and fit. After finishing his platter of food, he slides my plate over and eats the rest of it, too.

While watching him eat, I can’t help thinking about how fun it would be to cook his favorite food. Ty always complained about my cooking even as he was gobbling it all up. I bet Jesse wouldn’t do that. It would be nice to cook for someone who appreciated it for a change.

“Do you work out every day?” I ask. “How do you stay in such great shape?”

“You mean work out in a gym?” He shakes his head. “Nah, I don’t have time for that. We all keep in shape by doing work stuff, lifting bikes to change tires, and other things like that.”

That figures. A body as fine as Jesse’s would be God-given and not made by lifting weights.

He signals for the check.

“We should probably be heading on back. I don’t want you to be late for work. Do you want me to drop you off straight at the bar or do you need to go back to the hotel and change clothes first?”

I roll my eyes. Men. They’re so clueless sometimes. They must think we wake up looking all pretty with our hair fixed and makeup applied. They have no idea how long it takes us to get ready.

“I should change clothes and fix my hair,” I say. “My work outfit is a little different from what I have on now.”

I point to my t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops.

“Nothing too revealing, I hope,” he says, suddenly serious.

“Why? Are you jealous? Afraid another man might look at my boobs?”

He grabs my hand and links his fingers through mine. “Yes, exactly that. And your curvy ass too.”

“If it makes you feel better, you’re the only man I’m letting touch them.”

He grins. “Thanks for that and for the mental image. Now the whole ride back, all I’ll be thinking about is fondling your tits. And other things. If I start weaving off the road, you’ll know where my mind is wandering off to. Are you absolutely sure I can’t talk you into the sand dune thing? Because I spotted a few secluded places on the drive up.”

I playfully punch him.

“Time to hit the road, big fella, before you get all frisky right here at the table.”

“What about on a fishing pier then? Or under a fishing pier? That would be unique.”

“Now you’re just being weird.” I smile at him. “Ask me again sometime and I just might take you up on it.”

“You can bet I will.”