Lexi threw her bag down on to the floor, turning around on her heels to take a quick look around the small but clean living room before walking over to one of the windows, throwing open the white plantation shutters. A blast of sunshine flooded the room, transforming the previously mediocre space into something quite different. Now it felt bright. It felt welcoming. And that was something this town she’d just walked back into hadn’t made her feel in a long time – welcome.
She leant back against the window sill and folded her arms, hanging her head as a wave of tiredness washed over her. It was almost brutal, the speed at which fatigue swamped her, and it was all she could do to pull herself away from the window to look for the bedroom.
The one-storey house wasn’t exactly big, so it didn’t take her all that long to find the larger of the two bedrooms down a narrow hallway that ran from the living room towards the back of the house. And just the sight of the huge double bed with its pile of pillows and dark purple duvet made her realize that sleep was the only thing she needed right now. That bed was the most comforting sight she’d seen in a long time, and God knows she needed comfort right now. She needed sleep. She’d been travelling for hours, alone, and just a little bit afraid of where she was heading. Even though all she’d done was come home. And you weren’t supposed to be afraid of home, were you? Home was supposed to be your safe place. She just wasn’t entirely sure she had one of those anymore.
Sitting down on the edge of the bed she closed her eyes and ran her fingers lightly over the cool material of the duvet cover. She wanted to sink into that bed so badly. She wanted to curl up into a ball and close her eyes, let sleep take over, snatch a few more hours of peace before she had to face up to what she was doing. What she’d done. But she couldn’t hide forever. She hadn’t come back here to hide. If she’d wanted to hide she would have gone some place else. But instead she’d chosen to head back to this small town in northern California.
She opened her eyes and looked around the room, at the wardrobe in the corner, the pale blue walls that made the space seem slightly cold yet oddly cosy; at the window that looked out on to the back porch and a small private yard. And she hadn’t realized her fingers had been scrunching the duvet cover up quite so violently but as she looked down at her hand she realized that’s exactly what she’d been doing and she let go immediately, watching as the thin material sprang back to its original state.
The sound of her phone ringing in the other room pulled her back to reality and she looked up, at the door that led out into the hall and back to the living room. She didn’t feel much like answering it just yet. She didn’t feel much like talking. To anyone. And even though she’d promised herself she wouldn’t do this until she’d faced what was waiting for her out there in the small town she’d left eight years ago, the desire to just drift off and let sleep take over was too great.
Swinging her legs up on to the bed she pulled them up underneath her, curled into a tight little ball, and closed her eyes. This town was going nowhere. And neither was she.
The Brotherhood of Lone Riders Motorcycle Club was founded in 1951 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, north east England, by a man called Thomas Hart, a disaffected World War Two veteran who, along with ten of his closest friends, had wanted to create an environment where their slightly left-of-centre lifestyle could be lived without having to conform to the kind of day-to-day existence that terrified them.
After his death in the spring of 1976, his son Charlie took over the club. A twenty-one year old maverick who liked taking risks, Charlie took great pride in taking charge of the club his father had created. Just like Thomas, he wasn’t a man who’d ever wanted to be tied down by the 9-to-5 routine. That wasn’t him. He was a free spirit, a dreamer. And his dream was to carry on his father’s vision – to see the Lone Riders spread far and wide, to give others the chance to live their lives the way they really wanted to live them, not the way they felt they should be living them. In Charlie’s eyes, everyone had a choice.
Along with his friend Taylor ‘Tay’ Farlow, an American biker from California whom he’d met at a bikers’ rally in Las Vegas in the summer of ’75, they’d set that dream in motion, putting the word out, creating more chapters, with Tay finally returning home to the small, northern Californian town of Paradise to take charge of his own Lone Riders chapter, as well as overseeing the setting up of over half a dozen more around the US.
By the mid-1980s, as well as the UK Mother Chapter headed by Charlie, and ten chapters scattered across the US, there were also chapters as far afield as the Netherlands, Ireland, and Australia. Charlie had made sure his father’s vision had panned out exactly the way he’d wanted it to. And he couldn’t have been happier. His life was the one he’d always dreamed of living. He had a beautiful wife – in the summer of ’76, not long after he’d taken over the club, he’d married his eighteen year old Georgia-born American girlfriend Angie Barry in a wedding any true biker would have been proud of. They’d had two beautiful kids; everything was perfect. But what Charlie hadn’t banked on was his old lady and his best friend starting a dangerous game neither of them had had the sense to stop.
Angie and Tay’s affair had almost torn Charlie’s world apart, but with the help of the club, and the support of its members, he got through it. He came to terms with losing Angie. He came to terms with losing his kids when she upped and took them to California to be with Tay. He got used to it all. Because Charlie was tough. The club was his saviour. Which was why it hurt more to lose Tay than it did his wife. That was like losing his right arm, the betrayal he’d felt from his one-time best friend cut deeper than anything Angie had ever done. And it wasn’t something he could just forget about after she’d left for America. That had been the winter of 1994. And Charlie Hart had been keeping himself busy ever since.
Jesse sat down on one of the tables out front of the clubhouse, lighting up a cigarette and taking a deep drag. With his long, messed-up dark hair, full beard and an abundance of tattoos he looked like everybody’s stereotypical view of an MC member, all attitude and swagger. At thirty-eight years old he was handsome in an edgy, darkly sexy kind of way; a man who was never short of female attention. Along with his best friend Kip Hart he’d been a member of the Lone Riders for over seventeen years. A lifelong resident of Paradise, a small town in northern California, he’d grown up knowing nothing but the kind of life he was living now. His father had been a member of the club so Jesse had been born into the lifestyle that surrounded it. It was a world he was familiar with, a world he had no intention of leaving. Even though it had thrown a fair amount of crap at him over the years.
He and Kip, along with various other members of the Lone Riders, worked in the on-site auto repair shop, most of them mechanics by trade, all lifelong bikers. That was what they did. What people saw them do. And as well as the garage which was, to all intents and purposes, the public face of the Lone Riders MC, the club also owned and ran a small film studio – The Candy Cave – which made and distributed mainly mid-budget adult movies, and a boxing club that ran regular fight nights. All were legal and above board. All of them brought in quite a healthy sum of money for the club.
But the work people didn’t see them do, that was another matter. And that was all part of the life Jesse loved – the anticipation and excitement of never knowing what each day was going to bring, the kick all that shit could give you. The adrenalin rush was like a drug, just as addictive and twice as dangerous.
The Lone Riders MC had respect in Paradise. They looked after the town and its residents. They let nothing threaten their safety, or the town they all loved. Nothing. And no one.
‘You okay?’ Kip asked, coming out of the clubhouse and joining Jesse at the table, lighting up his own cigarette.
Jesse looked up, blowing smoke out into the clear blue, almost cloudless sky. ‘I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?’
Kip shrugged, nudging his cap further back on his head. ‘No reason.’
‘Everything all right in there?’ Jesse nudged his head in the direction of the clubhouse, the sound of loud, heavy rock music drifting out into the compound.
‘Fine. Apart from Angie working herself up into a paranoid frenzy.’
‘Tay due back today?’ Jesse blew more smoke up into the air.
Kip nodded, his cigarette now hanging out the corner of his mouth. ‘You know what my mum’s like. Seems to think every time he goes away on business he’s gonna find himself a younger model and she’ll be put out to pasture.’
Jesse smirked, taking one last drag before he stubbed his cigarette out on the table. ‘Angie’s got nothing to worry about on that score. She’s one of the hottest old ladies out there, and Tay’s crazy about her. Always has been.’
‘Yeah,’ Kip sighed, pulling one leg up on to the bench beside him, resting his arm on his knee as he stared out ahead of him, watching the traffic go by the open compound gate. ‘My mother, the MILF. You’d think she’d have realized by now that Tay isn’t going anywhere, but she just can’t stop herself from thinking he’s gonna be swayed by some younger, prettier face or a long pair of legs.’
‘That’s your territory, huh?’ Jesse grinned, jumping down from the table, reaching into his back pocket for his black beanie hat, pulling it down over his head.
‘You better believe it, brother.’ Kip grinned back, nipping the end of his cigarette to extinguish it before throwing it into the half-full ashtray on the table.
‘Church tonight, right?’ Jesse asked as he and Kip made their way back over to the garage, the late afternoon sun beating down on them.
‘Yeah. Tay wants to bring us all up to speed with what’s been going down with the Vegas chapter.’
‘Where’ve Blake, Cain and Luca gone?’
‘Coby sent them out on a run.’
Jesse stood still, his hands in the pockets of his oil-stained overalls. ‘A run? Something going down?’
‘Alcohol run, J. We’re a bit low on whisky and beer, and Tay’s coming home so, that means a party.’
Jesse’s face broke into another grin as they continued the short walk across the compound to the garage. ‘Can’t think of a better way to welcome our President back.’
Tay threw his bags down on the clubhouse floor, flung his arms in the air, and let forth a shout so loud dogs a block away started barking. ‘Daddy’s home!’
Tall and rangy with short, curly black hair, a goatee beard, and a physique that belied his fifty-nine years Tay Farlow was glad to be back after his short trip away. President of the Lone Riders northern California chapter, he’d lived his whole life in Paradise. It was a town he cared a great deal about, which was why he’d made sure this chapter had based itself right here, in his own back yard. Because he wanted to protect it, and everyone who lived there. They were his friends. His family. And all he wanted was for them to be able to live their lives in a safe environment. With the Riders in control, Tay knew that’s what they’d have.
‘Baby!’ Angie screeched, almost running from the clubhouse kitchen, throwing herself into his arms as Kip and Jesse made childish “vomiting” noises, laughing like a couple of teenagers instead of the grown men they were. ‘Oh, honey, I have missed you so much!’
‘I’ve missed you, too!’ Tay smiled, kissing her quickly before letting her go, making his way over to the other club members who’d already gathered in the clubhouse. ‘No welcome home party?’ He grinned, hugging his close friend and the club’s Vice President Coby Walker. The two men shared a love of scotch whisky, women and motorbikes, and although they’d had their fair share of rifts, fights and disagreements over the years, they’d always remained tight.
An ex-military man, originally from Glasgow, Scotland, Coby had started his life as a Lone Rider with Charlie over in north east England at the age of twenty-four. Three years later Charlie had sent him across the pond to help out in the Paradise chapter. Tay had taken him under his wing, they’d formed a firm friendship, a mutual respect, and the rest was history. He’d been in California ever since.
At almost forty-nine years old and over six feet tall with dark brown hair that was shot through with streaks of grey and just long enough to brush the collar of his black leather cut, Coby Walker was very much an old-school biker, incredibly striking in a roughed-up, unconventional kind of way. Which meant that, with his wide-set dark eyes, tattoo-covered body, battle-scarred face, thick goatee beard and moustache, and a strong Glaswegian accent he’d never lost despite all his years living in California, he was never short of women. And never one to let any of them down. He’d given his life to the Lone Riders, and he was living that life to the full.
‘Jesus, Tay, you know there’s a party,’ Coby laughed, pushing his friend away, turning to face the bar, pouring Tay a large measure of whisky. ‘Like we need an excuse.’ He handed Tay his drink before pouring one for himself, knocking it back in a single mouthful.
‘I knew you wouldn’t let me down.’ Tay grinned, helping himself to another drink. ‘Church first, though. Get you guys up to speed.’ He looked over at Angie. ‘I trust no shit went down while I was away?’
‘Everything’s fine,’ Angie said, walking over to him, playing with the open edges of his cut. ‘What about you? Everything go okay?’
‘It’s all sorted, baby, don’t you worry. The Vegas chapter got themselves a brand new President, so no more in-house problems. That kinda crap I can do without at my age, believe me.’ Tay turned to look at his crew, from the young Prospects all eager to make a good impression, to the familiar faces that had surrounded him for years. He loved them all. He loved this place. ‘Everyone here?’ he asked, slipping his arm around Angie’s waist.
‘Cain’s just bringing another case of beer through from out back,’ Angie said, running a hand through her red-streaked hair before shaking it out. ‘Wanted to make sure we had enough for tonight, so we got a few extra supplies in to tide us over until the next delivery. Nothing worse than running out of beer at a Lone Riders party, huh?’
Tay grinned, giving her waist another squeeze. ‘You got that right. Come on. Let’s get this show on the road. The sooner we get this meeting over with, the sooner we can start drinking!’
Lexi sat on the edge of the low wall, pulling at the top of her knee-high biker boots, a nervous reaction she hadn’t even been aware she’d adopted. So she started chewing on a nail instead, hating the fact she felt like a frightened teenager instead of the thirty-five year old woman she was. She should have had a handle on all of this by now, but if that was the case, why had she waited until after dark to come here? Why wasn’t she doing this in broad daylight, like she’d promised herself she would? Because she wasn’t doing anything tonight, that’s why. She was here only to observe, to see what she needed to see. The rest she had yet to work out.
Staring out ahead, she watched as the lights from the garage and the neighbouring office were switched off, the compound now lit up only by strings of white bulbs hanging from the canopy outside the clubhouse and a small, contained fire she’d watched someone start that bathed the whole of the yard in a warm orange glow.
She leant forward as more bodies flooded out into the compound, voices raised and laughter loud as the music was turned up a notch and another Lone Riders party got underway. Parties she was all too familiar with. They’d been a part of her life since – since forever. She leant further forward, squinting slightly as she tried to see if there were any new faces. She couldn’t really tell from so far away. But she had a feeling that – apart from the Prospects who were bound to be new – everything would be just the same. As familiar as it had been the day she’d left just over eight years ago.
Hanging her head she clasped her hands between her knees and breathed in deeply, a wave of nerves washing over her. There was a part of her that just wanted to run, back to where she’d come from, away from this and everything it could kick up, but there was another part of her that knew she had to do this. She had to face this. She’d come back to Paradise for a reason – it was her home. It was where she belonged, even though she’d spent the first fourteen years of her life in England. But Paradise – it was her home. And she wanted that safety back. She needed some questions answered. She needed to find her own truth because, for far too long, she’d been living someone else’s.
Taking one more long, deep breath she stood up, exhaling quickly, her eyes staring straight ahead at the party carrying on right there in front of her, everyone blissfully unaware that she was outside. Waiting to make her return.
Keeping her eyes focused on the Lone Riders compound, she put one tentative foot in front of the other and walked slowly across the road. Reaching the now-locked front gate she placed her hands on the cold metal, surprised they hadn’t pulled the solid gate across that blocked the compound from public view when necessary.
She stared through into the yard, her heart starting to beat at a rate she hadn’t been expecting. It was thudding so hard inside her it was almost painful. And that beating only got faster and harder when she saw him, for the first time since the events that had led to her leaving almost eight years ago. And everything that had happened since. He was leaning against one of the bikes, laughing with Kip, and she briefly closed her eyes as the memories she knew would never leave her flooded her brain.
‘Oh, Jesus,’ she whispered, bowing her head. ‘Jesus!’
Raising her gaze she watched as he pulled his hat down over his head, and she remembered how she’d sometimes liked him to keep it on when they’d made love, just as he’d always liked her to keep her biker boots on, and those memories caused Lexi’s heart to crack with a pain that was all-too familiar to her now.
Letting go of the gate she turned around, leaning back against it, closing her eyes again as the enormity of what she was doing – of what she’d already done – finally sunk in. But that was enough for tonight. This was all she could do. Everything else could wait until tomorrow.
© Michelle Betham 2014
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