She hated the smell of New York City in the summer.
Nose crinkled against the humid breeze from the alley, Maya stomped her heel into her tall black boot and swung her backpack over her shoulder. Around her, the sidewalk teemed with harried businesspeople and eager students. At that moment, she was neither. It was Friday, quitting time, and unlike all those around her, she knew when to quit. Monday morning would arrive soon enough, and she had forty-eight hours of hardcore play to get to.
The rumble of a motorcycle brought a grin to her lips as it pulled to the curb. Astride the blacked-out Harley, Antony De Luca looked like a bad boy criminal, but any guy who’d ride into the city to pick up his little sister’s friend was anything but.
“Your chariot, my lady.” He smiled at her, bright white teeth and one dimple flashing in the sunshine.
Maya stepped onto the back peg and swung her leg over. Settling behind Ant wasn’t a chore, his broad shoulders already easing the stench of NYC with the scent of hard-working male, sunshine, and a subtle touch of aftershave.
The only thing she hated more than the smell was the traffic. She squealed as he gunned the engine and swerved the bike from the curb into what Maya thought was way too small of a break between a huge SUV and a cab. At the stop light, he reached down and squeezed her knee. “Just bury your head in my back. We’ll be out of the city soon.”
“Easy for you to say,” Maya muttered. “You didn’t fail your test three times.”
His shoulders flexed as he tried to contain the laugh. “Keep telling you, you can practice in my lot anytime. Or in the field. You’ll pass this summer. Guaranteed.”
Maya snorted, but it was lost as he throttled up to the next gear change. A bicycle messenger cut in front of them and Maya thumped her helmet into his back, arms tightening around his midsection. This time, he didn’t try to contain the laughter that rumbled through his big body, making her feel safe and annoyed all at once.
She gave a huff, but left her head right where it was until they were rolling out of the city and the traffic loosened around them. When she lifted her head, fresher air wafted over her face and made her nose twitch. The pavement leveled out into smooth surface streets as they crossed the state line and the air grew denser, cleaner, the smells of summer in the forest finally clearing the city out of her nose.
This was the part of riding she loved. Even if she never got the hang of it herself, she could always jump on the back of someone else’s bike and feel like she was flying. Her weight settled easily against the small backrest, putting just enough space between her and Ant to cool the sweat from her skin. His t-shirt clung to his back where she had been pressed against him, but the view made it impossible for her to feel bad about making him hot and sweaty. He’d dry out and wouldn’t complain even if he didn’t.
Flirting with Ant was always a good time, but Maya had never felt more than a friendly zing for him. Which wasn’t to say the man was anything less than sex on legs. But he was huge. Most people towered over her, but Ant did more than that. Just standing casually beside him, she felt like he was…looming. It was a disconcerting feeling, one she could manage in a friend, but not in someone she was going to get all naked and dirty with.
Maya needed some naked and dirty in her life.
And as it had all week, the thoughts flooded unbidden into her brain. She squirmed on the seat at the sudden throb they brought.
She’d forgotten all about him…mostly. She’d certainly not spared his brother, Tommy, her ex, the ex that every woman seemed to have, a passing thought in years.
It was her supervisor’s fault, along with most other things that were going wrong that summer. He’d contracted a studio to provide new intro and background music for his show at the radio station she was interning at.
Then, as usual, sent her to pick it up, since in his eyes, she was nothing more than the errand girl. She knew where the studio was. It was the one her ex had used when they’d been dating. His brother had worked there as well.
And apparently still did. She had been waiting for a crossing signal on her walk back to the station, idling turning the plastic case over in her hand, when she saw it. Theo Nichols. His name, which she may have missed had he only been listed in the interior notes as the guitarist. But no, it was on the outside as well, listed under producer and writer.
She’d missed the crossing signal. Maybe the next one too. She still wasn’t sure, over a week later, how long she’d stood there, memories washing over her. The dreams had started that night. Not friendly dreams either, despite the fact that was all they had been.
No, these were definitely of the adult variety. Triple x-rated adult variety.
Skin flushing, Maya dropped her head, the edge of her helmet thumping into Ant’s back. The motorcycle immediately slowed as he let off the throttle and turned his head enough to shout over his shoulder.
“Hey, Shorty, you okay back there? Do you need to stop?”
She lifted her head and blew out a deep breath. “No. Just…my brain having too many thoughts,” she shouted back.
One corner of Ant’s mouth twitched, but he turned his eyes back to the road before reaching down and giving her knee a squeeze.
Yeah, she really needed to get laid. The bartender at the Roll Cage had been flirting with her all summer. She could probably make that happen, although he did remind her a little of Tommy — a complete player, racking up notches on his summer vacation. She had no problem with the concept, but if he was like Tommy, the sex would only be mediocre anyway.
She stretched her arms carefully over her head and breathed deep. The fresh air cooled her lungs and cleared her head a bit.
This was not a time to be thinking about sexy rock stars. One in particular. He was long gone out of her life, even if she did have to listen to his riffs constantly at work.
The bike tilted slightly to her right and Maya quickly slipped her arms around Ant’s waist. The curve straightened out, but the bike tilted again as Ant pulled smoothly into the parking lot of an old fashioned ice cream stand and pulled alongside several bikes at the far end of the lot.
A grin split her face and she swung her leg over the bike, hopping the last few inches from the peg to the concrete.
The Mutiny Dolls were here.
She’d know the bikes anywhere. Lined up, they looked incongruous to other people, but to her, they were in perfect harmony, each bike representing its rider’s personality.
Emily’s was classic lines and vintage pastel paint, a finely tuned machine with just enough girly touches. Stella’s was bold Americana tattoo-style, chrome bright in the late afternoon sun. Lizzie’s bike screamed badass, blacked-out and showing its miles. Ant had been after her for years to let him polish the pipes, but each time she refused, preferring the tarnish of age and long roads.
“There she is!” Em shouted, jumping up from a picnic table under the angular red and white striped awning.
“Hurry before your sundaes melt!” Stella shouted, pointing to two insulated bowls sitting in the middle of the table. Out of one, the dark brown corner of a brownie stuck up, complete with nuts.
“Mine!” Maya declared, then ran over to the table. Lizzie caught her in a bear hug as she landed next to the blonde on the bench seat.
“They’re both brownie sundaes. No use starting the Sundae Wars all over again,” Lizzie said as Ant took a seat on her other side.
“You’re just sore because you lost,” he said, snagging the larger sundae. Maya had no problem with that as the small was big enough for three meals.
“Shoving an entire triple scoop cone down my back does not a Sundae War win.” Lizzie sniffed delicately before licking into the base of her waffle cone.
“Fun, though,” Ant said through a mouthful of ice cream and hot fudge.
“Who’s the fourth bike?” Maya asked, noticing the small Yamaha parked at the end of the other bikes.
“Oh, that would be you,” Stella said off-handedly.
Her soft serve caught in her throat. “What?” she coughed.
“Yeah, we figured you needed some riding time. One of Ant’s guys dropped it off, so you don’t have a choice. Unless you want all of us to sit here for a few hours until he can get the truck back out here.” Lizzie shrugged and bit into the cone.
“You’re all fucking evil.”
“Yep,” four voices agreed.
“Think of it this way,” Em said, slinging her arm across Maya’s shoulders. “It’s an easy stretch of road, with all four of us around you. Piece of cake.”
Maya perked up. “Is there cake?” Emily was a baker and while cookies were her specialty, her cakes were nothing to pass by. They weren’t always pretty, but that didn’t matter when they tasted like sin on a fork.
“There may be double frosted sugar cookies waiting at Ant’s shop,” Em offered.
Ant snorted. “Only if you hid them.”
Lizzie lifted a shoulder. “I threatened them.”
“There’s cookies at the shop,” Ant said, then laughed along with the rest of them.
Maya eyed the bike, noting the smaller size than the Harleys around it. She didn’t immediately recognize the model, but it couldn’t have been more than a 250cc. There was no way it would keep up with their bikes.
They wouldn’t have gone to the trouble if they were going to leave her in their tracks.
“I get two cookies.”
They finished their ice cream and put their gear back on. Ant came over and pulled her against him as she sat on the bike while the engine warmed up a little. It wasn’t fuel injected like the Harleys, and that made her worry about it being rough in first gear.
“Figured this one was more your size. See, you can even flat foot it,” he said, giving her a squeeze. “Lizzie is going first, then you and Stella right behind you. Once we’re all out on the road, it’ll be wide enough for her to pull just a little in front of you, on your right. You can watch her for shifting, okay? You’ll be in fifth before you know it, and then it’s an easy ride to the shop.”
“What if I stall pulling out of the lot?”
“You won’t. That’s why we parked down here. You can get up to second and then merge onto the road at the other end of the lot.”
“What about traffic?”
There wasn’t a lot of it right then, after the people who stopped there after dinner and before the crowd of kids following the local high school football game, but with her luck, there’d be an eighteen wheeler just as she tried to pull out.
“Well, that’s why Em and I are in the back.” She looked up at him and he winked. “Don’t overthink it, Shorty. Best thing about riding a bike is that your brain can’t think about anything else, right?”
“I hate it when you call me Shorty.”
He laughed as he leaned down and bussed her cheek. “That’s why I do it.”
She swatted his ass as he walked away. When she turned back, Stella was smiling at her. “You two are so damn cute,” she sang. “Now give me your backpack.”
Maya slid it off her shoulders, grateful to be rid of its weight. Stella adjusted the straps before sliding her arms through. “You look nervous. Don’t be nervous.”
“I haven’t ridden in two months.”
“You’re going to be fine. And afterward, you get alcohol and a rock band at the Roll Cage.”
“There’s a band tonight?”
Stella laughed. “You should see how your eyes light up. Yes, a band. With rock and roll guys. Probably hot rock and roll guys. Ready?”
Maya nodded, a goofy smile on her face as Stella got on her bike and hit the starter.
Even over the sounds of Emily’s and Ant’s bikes starting, she heard Lizzie laughing as she rocked her bike back and forth.
“If it helps any,” Lizzie called, shifting into first, “that bike makes your ass look good!”
Lizzie took off before Maya had a chance to respond, but Stella nodded toward her grips, reminding her that she had to actually ease off the clutch to make the bike go. To her surprise, all the riding lessons came back to her, and she managed not only to get the bike into second without stalling, but merge onto the road as well.
Stella pulled ahead of her once all five of them were together, and Maya was grateful she didn’t have to think about when to shift. Ant was right, her brain didn’t give her one single thought other than the road as they glided around the long curves and picked up speed on the straights. She had to swerve around a large pothole, and the easy way the weight of the bike shifted with her made her feel like she was flying in a way being on the back never did.
By the time they neared Ant’s shop forty-five minutes later, Maya was high on fresh air and success. They began to slow, readying to pull into the turning lane in front of Ant’s shop, when something hard and wet hit her just under her riding glasses. Startled, she grabbed for the clutch, barely shifting down in time to brake. Still, she skidded past Stella and her front wheel bumped against Lizzie’s rear tire where she was stopped, waiting for a jacked-up pickup to pass before making the left turn.
Lizzie twisted, leaned to see the tires touching, then smiled up at Maya. “Good thing those are made of rubber, huh? You okay? You’ve got a bunch of guts on your face.”
Maya reached up, wiping at something gooey on her cheek. When she pulled her hand away, wings stuck to her glove. She squealed a little as she shook them free.
“Happens to all of us sooner or later.” Stella laughed. “Just a few hundred feet to go. You gonna make it?”
Maya nodded. She’d just made it over fifty miles — Lizzie had decided to take the long way — she could make it into the parking lot. Once there though, she almost forgot to put the stand down. Ant caught the bike before it hit the ground, his lips twitching as he tried not to smile.
“Don’t tell Jamie I told you, but one of those huge bees got him the other day too. He almost went head on with a Prius in the other lane. I think they have a hive in that empty building.” He nodded toward the other end of his lot.
“A Prius?” Stella planted her hands on her hips. “He said it was a bus.”
“Fishing tales, riding tales, guys embellish them all,” Emily said as she walked back out of the shop, a container of cookies in her hand. “I think you get three. Those bees are kind of…juicy. C’mon, we’ll get you cleaned up and then you can ride over with me. Ant is working on my bike next week so my car is here.”
“I’ve never been so happy for a windshield,” Maya said a few minutes later, adjusting the visor to keep the setting sun out of her eyes. She flipped down the cover over the mirror and took a closer look at her cheek. “I have a bruise. From a bee. I have a goddamn bruise from a bee!”
In the driver’s seat, Emily laughed. “Imagine how much worse it would be if it hit you when we were going seventy-five.”
“When the hell were we going seventy-five?” Maya exclaimed, eyes so wide the stretch hurt her face.
Emily laughed harder. “Didn’t know those little 250s could do that, did you?”
“Nice that you all think it’s funny,” she groused, but she was starting to laugh too. The truth was, she felt more relaxed than she had in weeks.
“Seriously, you did great. We all had our mishaps while learning. A few drinks from now, that bee is going to be your favorite story of the night.”
By the time they pulled into the Roll Cage parking lot, it was dark, and the lot was full. By the back entrance, a vaguely familiar guy pulled an amp out of the back of a van that had seen better days. It had New York license plates.
“Not a local band then,” Maya noted, hoping they were playing this far out to expand their audience and not because they sucked so bad they couldn’t get a gig in the city.
She didn’t recognize anyone around the stage as she went to the bar for a drink and then up to their usual table on the far side of the room. The Roll Cage wasn’t a huge bar, but it wasn’t small like the hole in the wall they’d worked during college. The decent-sized dance floor would be packed within an hour. She sat with her back to the stage, preferring to hear a band before she saw them. Which is why she noticed both Lizzie’s and Stella’s eyes go wide right after the singer tested the microphone.
Emily turned around to look, then turned back to Maya.
Maya paused with her drink halfway to her mouth. “What?”
“You’re going to need a stronger drink,” Emily said, getting up and heading to the bar.
Maya spun around on the bench, gaze darting over the stage. Drummer, bass player, two guitarists — none of them familiar. Then the singer stood up from where he’d been adjusting a cord, and…shit. It was Tommy. Her ex Tommy. Which meant…
Heart stuttering in her chest, Maya did the only thing she could think of. She ran to the other side of the table and stooped down behind Lizzie and Stella, who immediately leaned their shoulders together. Peeking between their heads, Maya searched for the last person she ever expected to run into again.
“What are you hiding for?” Stella asked. “He’s the asshole.”
“That’s not who she’s hiding from,” Lizzie said, sipping at her drink. “He’s on the left side, behind the sound board.”
A taller guy stepped to the side, and there he was, smile as bright as she remembered it, looking better than he had in her dreams all week.
“Is that…?” Stella asked as Em returned with a tray of shots.
Maya breathed out his name. “Theo.”
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