Normally, the rumble of motorcycles put
butterflies in Ardy Larkin's stomach. The Red, White,
and Blue Rally brought in a huge portion of money
that kept the economy in Denton, North Carolina
from being dead in the water. Last year, her father
made a deal with the Devil-The Dueling Devils to
be exact. The one-percenter biker gang fronted him
enough cash to keep the family bar and grill open.
The terms had never been talked about in her
presence, but she knew for a fact they were short.
They'd barely kept themselves clothed and fed this
year. Now, it was time to pay the piper. What will the
Ardy shifted her weight and watched the chrome
and steel beasts zip by the window. A group of bikes
broke away from the stream and lined the parking
spaces in front of the bar. Her legs turned to rubber,
and she caught the edge of the counter top, holding
on for dear life as she forced herself to remain
standing. Red-horned caricatures of devils faced each
other below a white 1 percent emblem on their vests.
The Dueling Devils patches were impossible to
mistake. The door swung open. Her heart slapped
against her ribs.
She feigned a coolness she didn't feel, wiping the
bar with her sanitized towel. Boots stomped over the
floor toward her. The swinging doors that separated
the main area from the entrance flapped together.
"Ardy." Her father's voice held concern.
"Yes, sir?" She looked up. Her father's stormy
blue eyes bored a hole into her. Worry and concern
clouded their normal vibrancy. The ever present smile
considered Pat Larkin's trademark was gone.
"Close down the shop and head home early,
okay?" Shocked, she stared at him, rooted to the spot.
They never closed early. "Ardy." The terse tone of
her father's voice broke through her stupor.
"I'm on it, Da." She placed her towel in the dirty
bucket they laundered daily, and stepped from behind
the bar. The sensation of eyes on her back amplified
with every step she took. Flipping the sign from open
to closed, she turned the dead bolt.
"Thank you. Now, straight home," her father said.
"Oh no, I think she should stay." The husky voice
made her belly bottom out like the tallest roaster
coast at an amusement park. "Your failure to come
through is going to affect her directly. I think she
deserves to know about it up front."
She rotated slowly and faced the man effectively
taking a wrecking ball to her life-Demon, the
Dueling Devils' president. The sheer size of him
intimidated her. At least six-foot-three with broad
shoulders and a solid build, the man was massive.
Bronze skin peeked out from beneath the mural of
colorful tattoos that covered the thick muscles of his
arm. Mesmerized by his magnetism, she moved her
gaze up to his face. A square jaw, long, straight nose,
and oval-shaped face gave him rugged beauty. His
brown eyes held novels full of experience. He
couldn't be much more than late thirties, but those
eyes were wizened. Her mouth dried out, and her
muscles tensed. What could he possibly want with me?
Illustration of degradation, unwanted sexual
advances, and submission danced behind her lids.
She'd seen the house mouses who didn't want to
be where they ended up. Dead eyes, fake smiles, and
strain were the things each one seemed to have in
common. Demon focused in on her, and their gazes
clashed. Like a snake trapped by the flute notes
played by a charmer, she found herself unable to look
"What the hell does Ardy have to do with any of
this?" Her father's chest heaved. He stood ramrod
straight, clenching his hands, but his voice remained
tempered. They had a lot riding on this. A show of
the Larkins' infamous Irish temper wouldn't help a
"We need to take this to the office." Demon
nodded toward the double doors that lead to the
small office in the back. "Refreshments for my boys?"
"Of course ." Her father nodded. "Ardy, stay here
and serve them."
"No, she comes with us," Demon said. The nonegotiable
tone made her stomach clench. Blood
rushed in her ears. Questions swirled in her head,
swarming like a hive of agitated bees trying to protect
their queen from danger. Overwhelmed, each thought
felt fleeting, moving out of her grasp before she could
get a handle on it. Panic dumbed her. Like a deer
caught in headlights, she lost the ability to rationalize.
The walk to the office was the longest of her life.
Ushered into a chair by her father, she sat beside him
on the opposite side of the desk from Demon.
"Do you want to tell me what you meant out
there?" her father said.
"She's the payment I'll be collecting for your
debt," Demon said.
The world spun, and she swayed as the impact
stole her breath. She gripped the arms of the chair to
anchor her and took deep breaths. Don't throw up, don't
throw up. This didn't happen in real life, not to women
like her. She'd been a straight A student and hadn't
lost her virginity until twenty, for Christ's sake.
"Bullshit!" Her father's voice boomed in the
empty space. His meaty fist pounded the wooden
surface in front of him.
Demon's jaw clenched. A pending sense of doom
rocketed through her body, and she surged forward.
"Dad, let's hear him out."
"What?" Her father turned his head to stare at
her. His round face was beet red, and a vein throbbed
in the center of his forehead. "This isn't the eighteenhundreds.
I'm not auctioning you off like some kind
"Did I say I wanted her for sex?" Demon asked.
"What else would you want her for, Demon?"
"You'd best watch your tone, Paddy. You make a
deal with the devil, he's going to eventually come to
call, especially when you don't deliver."
The quiet promise of violence in Demon's voice
wasn't lost on her. She grabbed her father's arm and
dug her nails into the flesh of the corded muscles
built up from years of manual labor. There were six
other people in her family to worry about. He
couldn't afford to be out of commission.
"I apologize," her father said with a thick brogue.
The Irish accent always became more pronounced
when strong emotions hit. Her mother claimed that's
what pulled her toward her father in the first place.
Her parents were an odd pair. The staunch Catholic
Irish man, and the small town Baptist African
American girl-it hadn't been an easy road to pave.
Demon nodded. "I'll let it slide this once, given
the circumstances and the fact that no one else is
around to witness it. Don't make the mistake of
forgetting yourself again." The air seemed to lose
oxygen. The room shrank like some medieval torture
"What I find myself in need of is a live-in nanny. I
know this family. You're good people. She's the
oldest of four children, who's always looked out after
her younger siblings. When she grew up she tended
She gaped at Demon, stunned by his spot-on
summary. He smirked. The devilish grin changed him
completely. The scary factor gave way to sexy, and
she did her best not to drool. Jesus, too much work and
no recreation has sent me around the bend.
"I know everything that goes on this town, Ardy,"
Demon said. The sound of her name on his lips made
her shiver. "My sister's charter is here."
"That's it? You want her to watch someone's
kids?" Her father frowned, narrowing his eyes.
"No." Demon's eyes flashed. "It's for my children.
I don't like imposing on my boys' families all the
time, or leaving them with some biker bunny. I need a
more permanent arrangement"
Relief crashed over Ardy like a wave. "I can take
care of children in my sleep." She latched onto the
familiar task like a lifeline. "How many are there, and
Demon shifted his attention to her. "Two. Harley
is three, and her brother Rocket is four."
She memorized the information, turning the
unique names over in her mind. "Oh those are sweet
ages." Ardy smiled.
"Yeah, they're good kids, believe it or not."
"And how long would this be for?" her father
Demon narrowed his eyes at her father. "Until I
feel like the debt's paid." He leaned forward. "Is that
going to be a problem?"
Her father ground his teeth together. "You expect
her to uproot her life and what, go with you?" He
drummed his fingers on his desk.
"She'd have the rally to adjust to Harley and
Rocket, and say her goodbyes. But when we pull out
of this town, she'll be with us. I didn't make this
happen, Paddy. Don't look at me as if I came in out
of nowhere and shook you down. You know we're
not in the business of generosity."
"It's fine. I'll do it. Birdie can run the bar in my
stead. She's just as capable. I know she can swing
college and work," Ardy said, frantic to solve this
peaceably. She'd seen the destruction the Devils
could do. It wasn't something she needed to go
around feeling responsible for. Arrogant or not,
Demon had been right when he said this would be
getting off easy. She'd seen the gang burn down an
establishment before to prove a point.
"Ardy." Her father shook his head. Shame filled
his eyes. Family above all had been drilled in her head
from the minute she'd been old enough to
comprehend it. She wouldn't let him back out now
when they could solve this issue peaceably.
"Looks like I'm getting that overdue vacation,
He shook his head.
Demon cleared his throat. "My kids are here. I
expect you to spend time getting to know them,
making sure they're comfortable before we get back
home. I'm a busy man, away more than I'm home. I
want to know things in my house are as they should
be." The steely determination in his dark eyes turned
her blood cold. They promised pain if she did wrong
by his kids.
"I-I understand," Ardy said.
"Good, I'll be back around this evening with
them. Be ready to go back to the hotel with us."
"I-okay?" She glanced at her dad, who issued a
curt nod. If he lost it now, things would get ugly fast.
You didn't mess with the Dueling Devils. People who
mouthed off, or double crossed them, had a way of
disappearing, or wishing they could. Nerves made her
bounce her leg.
"I think you should get home and get your things
together. It's time Demon and I speak alone."
Uncertain of who trumped who in this situation,
she turned to glance at Demon, who nodded. "Oh
yeah, I think we'll get along just fine," Demon said
with a sly smile.
Heat filled her cheeks, and she looked away,
embarrassed by the spark of excitement that rose in
her chest. She'd never been out of town other than
away games during basketball season in high school.
There was freedom in leaving behind everything she
knew, and the mile-high pile of responsibilities that
tied her to the bar. She loved her family, but she often
dreamed of more. In a town where couples had
known one another since the womb and been married
off right out of high school, she'd always felt like the
odd man out.
Hindered by the responsibility of playing
surrogate mother while her parents scrimped together
every penny they made to get the bar up and running,
she'd never really had a chance to connect to anyone
on that level. Guilt made her lower her head as she
stood. I should be terrified. What kind of a person wants to
leave behind their home? Ashamed, she slunk out of the
office and took the back exit.
She sat inside her car, gathering her thoughts as
she ran over what she'd tell her mother. There'd be
hell in the Larkin home. Her mother had been against
dealing with the Devils in the first place. Having her
firstborn whisked away like some fairytale gone
wrong would only exasperate the rift her father's
Her thoughts wandered back to Demon. He ran
the Dueling Devils with an iron fist, made men twice
his size quake in fear, but cared enough to hire a
nanny for his kids? Hell, him having kids had come as
a shock. What happened to the mother? Full of
questions with no answers, she started up the reliable
sedan and pulled out of the parking lot.