Odds were whoever came home with him last night—giggling hysterically, because the endless sex noises weren’t quite annoying enough—had a hangover and a half. It’d been the club’s Halloween party. I’d gone for a classic, the Playboy Bunny (in honor of Bridget Jones), which had been rather satisfying. Painter was all over me, something I would’ve killed for six months ago. Now? Fuck him.
Fuck all of ’em.
Men, I mean. I was done with people who had penises, especially bikers. Liam (he’d disappeared off the face of the earth after his late-night visit, so far as I could tell). Painter (who only wanted me when he couldn’t have me). My dad (ugghh).
I’d decided to start campaigning for a woman’s right to marry her vibrator. So far I’d collected signatures from . . . well, mostly just Maggs. Her old man, Bolt, was coming up for parole soon, but she didn’t think he’d get out. He wouldn’t admit he’d done anything wrong. We all knew he was innocent. Hell, we even knew the DNA would exonerate him.
Convincing the state to actually get off their asses and test it, though? Good luck.
Maggs had dressed up like a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, declaring it was her current version of slutty. Said she’d started associating prison jumpsuits with sex, seeing how the only time she got laid was during the very occasional conjugal visit.
I considered the music volume levels, then turned them up just a notch. I wasn’t blasting the back bedroom too loud—but listening to perky dance songs is a great way to wake up and get moving, right? Not only that, it seemed only civil to make a nice brunch for them.
A new song started, and I heard stirrings from the back of the house. Guessing who would come out of Dad’s bedroom any given morning was a real crapshoot. I kept fantasizing that he’d bring home someone over the age of thirty, but no joy so far. Knowing my luck, it was yet another chick I’d been in high school with.
I should start carding them to make sure they were legal.
It hadn’t always been this way. When Mom died, my dad went dark on us for a while, an angry lion who prowled around the house and occasionally swatted at things that got in his way. That first year I hadn’t seen him with a woman, not even once.
After that? It’s like a switch went off, and now he screwed around more than Ruger did before Sophie, which was saying something. But I might as well make Dad’s “friend” feel welcome, I told myself piously. After a long, hard night she would be hungry. I started whipping up pancakes, singing loudly as songs cycled through.
By the third song, the griddle was hot and the batter ready.
By the sixth I had a dozen pancakes cooked and ready. I’d also heard some thudding from the back of the house, and a high-pitched squeal. His latest party favor sounded just like a baby pig, I decided uncharitably.
Sure enough, when the girl marched into the kitchen, I recognized her. Yet another one I’d gone to school with. Officially icky. I eyed her as I took a sip of coffee. Then I raised my cup, wordlessly offering her some. She shook her head, wincing from the motion. I took another sip of sweet caffeine, hiding my smirk.
I set the cup down and poured a measuring bowl of whipped eggs into the frying pan. I heard a gagging noise behind me as she took off running for the bathroom. A few minutes later, Dad wandered into the kitchen. He wore nothing but flannel pajama pants, leaning against the counter as I passed him a cup of coffee without comment.
He took a sip, then spoke.
“You have plans for today?” he asked.
He didn’t ask about the girl or complain about the loud music.
He never did.
I had a secret theory that he liked how I chased off his women first thing in the morning. Sort of like letting out the dog, or hauling the trash to the curb. It was just one of the many small things I did to make his life more pleasant. In return he made it impossible for me to date and tried to micromanage my life.
Didn’t seem quite fair, something I needed to discuss with him. I took a deep breath, figuring there was no time like the present.
“Actually, I’ve got a project today,” I told him.
“What’s that?” he asked. A loud barfing noise came from the bathroom, and we both winced.
A pained look crossed his face.
“Yeah, you got me there. So what’s this project?”
“Well, you know I’ve been looking into getting my aesthetician’s certification? I found a program and they’ve accepted me. You know I love doing nails, but I think this would be a great step forward.”
“That’s nice,” he said, then smiled. “I got no idea what that is, but if it makes you happy, go for it.”
“Here’s the thing,” I said, taking a deep breath. “The program’s in Portland.”
I braced myself, expecting him to explode. He didn’t disappoint.
“What the f**k are you thinking?”
“Cookie and I were talking at the wedding,” I said. “She’s got space and could use a little rental income. She’s lonely since Bagger died. She loves Portland, but having a friend around would help.”
“Don’t bullshit me, little girl,” he muttered. “This has to be about Hunter. What the f**k did he do to you? You gotta talk to me.”
I shook my head. He’d been after me to give him details of my time alone with Liam, but I wasn’t ready for that. I might never be ready. It seemed like my feelings changed daily, but I knew one thing for sure.
Dad wasn’t the person I’d be talking to when and if I felt the need.
“No, this is about me,” I told him firmly. “It’s time for me to strike out on my own. I love Portland, I love Cookie, and I need to get out of Coeur d’Alene.”
He looked away, face hardening.
“If it’s not Hunter, is it Painter? You need to get away from him? I know he was all over you last night, but I can make him back the f**k off, baby.”
“No,” I repeated. “That’s part of the problem. Everyone thinks it’s about the men in my life, or the club. It’s not. This is about me. I love you, but I’m almost twenty-three years old. I want my own space—it’s time.”
“I want you to be happy,” he said slowly. “And I can even understand moving out on your own. But Portland is the wrong city.”
“Don’t give me that,” I told him. “The truce with the Devil’s Jacks is solid. Deke and the brothers will be there for me. You have to accept the fact that I’m an adult and I can take care of myself. I promise you—if I need help, I’ll ask for it. But you can’t just tie me up in bubble wrap and store me in the basement. Kit’s on her own and she’s doing fine. It’s my turn.”
“Well, if that’s what you really want . . .” he said finally. He shook his head. “I don’t like it. For the record, I don’t like her being out there, either.”
I smiled, because I knew I had him.
“I’ll be fine, Dad. I love—”
“Oh, I can’t believe how much my head hurts,” moaned my former classmate as she stumbled into the kitchen, her face faintly green.
Kind of like the inside of a cucumber.
The wave of warmth I’d been feeling toward Dad chilled. Why the hell did he keep f**king around with women like this? Mom would kill him dead if she saw him pulling this shit. Not out of jealousy. Nope. Straight-up mercy shot.
“You think you could turn that music down?” she whimpered.
I shook my head in mock sorrow, then shouted, “Can’t find the remote!”
Her entire body shuddered and then I felt sort of guilty. I might be disgusted by the situation, but now she was turning all pitiful on me, ruining a perfectly good self-righteous snit.
“Oh, here it is,” I muttered. I grabbed the phone and turned the music off, wishing I could remember her name.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” she asked, and I bit back a sigh. At least I wasn’t the only one with a shitty memory.
“We went to school together,” I said. “Unfortunately, you f**ked my dad last night, so I thought I’d make you breakfast. Consider it your consolation prize.”
Confusion filled her face, and I let the last of my snit go. Who cared if Dad screwed twenty-year-olds? At least he wasn’t marrying them.
“You want some coffee?”
“No thanks,” she said. She looked over at the silent man watching us and frowned. “She really your kid?”
He nodded, and I saw a hint of humor in his eyes.
“That’s kind of creepy,” she said, glancing between us. He shrugged.
“You ready for a ride home?”
She pondered, the wheels in her head obviously a little rusty.
“Um, yeah,” she said. “That’s probably a good idea.”
“Vanessa!” I blurted out, feeling proud I remembered her name. She winced, and I realized I’d shouted. “Sorry—I couldn’t remember what it was, and then when I did . . .”
She just looked at me with big, postparty raccoon eyes. That’s when I noticed her “costume.” It was a super short, super tight little dress that had something weird and orange on the front. There was a fluff of green covering each boob.
“What the hell is that?” I asked. “I mean, what are you supposed to be dressed like?”
“I’m a sexy carrot.”
I looked at Dad and shook my head slowly. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“I’m just gonna go get my things,” Vanessa said nervously. “This is too weird for me.”
“Good idea,” Dad told her. “We’ll leave in five.”
She stumbled back out of the room.
“Seriously? Sexy carrot?”
“I didn’t realize how young she was. She looked older last night.”
“Keep telling yourself that.”
“Are you sure about this Portland shit?” he asked, clearly uninterested in discussing his carrot fetish, which wasn’t a huge surprise. He didn’t take women too seriously. In fact, that was his excuse every time he ran off one of my boyfriends.
He didn’t want me hooking up with someone like him. Too late for that. Fucking Liam.
“I’m sure. I’ve made all the arrangements. I’ll finish out my notice this week at the salon, and I’m moving on Saturday. I’d like it if you’d drive down with the truck, help me get my things settled.”
He sighed, reaching up and rubbing the back of his neck.
“You’re an adult,” he said finally. “You can do what you want. But what about Painter? You totally sure that’s over? Boy’s got it bad for you.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Painter turned me down and then screwed some slut in the bathroom not five minutes later,” I said dryly. “I’m done with Painter. Been done with him for a while. This isn’t a secret, no matter how much he’s been following me around lately. He just wants what he can’t have.”
His eyes darkened.
“It wasn’t the right night, baby girl.”
“It never is,” I snapped. “I think I can do better.”
Dad nodded thoughtfully.
“Okay,” he replied. “Hey, Emmy?”
“You’re making the right choice,” he told me. “About Painter, I mean.”
I froze. Didn’t see that coming.
“What? I thought you wanted me with a Reaper?”
“I do,” he replied. “But Painter never fought for you. He never stood up to me, never asked if he could date you, nothing. You deserve a man who’ll fight for you, baby girl. You remember that, all right?”
Wow. Didn’t see that coming. I felt sudden tears well up, and I lurched forward into his arms. He wrapped them tight around me, resting his chin on my head and rubbing my back softly.
“Just remember,” he said. “You and Kit—you can always come home. I don’t want you to leave. It’s perfect with you here, but I guess you’ll do fine in Portland. Just don’t sell yourself short. You find what your mom and I had, and don’t settle for less.”
“Painter is definitely less,” I murmured.
“Yup,” Dad said. “He’s my brother now and I’ll stand by him. But I never cheated on your mom. Never wanted to. You need a man who feels the same way, and don’t stop until you find him.”
“I love you, Daddy,” I whispered.
“Hey, you got any Febreze or air freshener?” Vanessa asked, her voice a shrill whine. “I got beer shits. Your bathroom reeks.”
Damn. I wasn’t the only one who could do better.
“This is a new low, Dad,” I whispered. His chest rose in silent laughter.
“Yeah, I’ll give you that. Shit. What the f**k was I thinking?”
“Something to consider . . .” I said, pulling away to look up into his face. He smiled down at me, the blue eyes he’d given me crinkling just a little around the edges. “Moving forward? There is no such thing as sexy produce. Words to live by.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
TWO WEEKS LATER
“ID?” the bouncer asked. Kit rolled her eyes and pulled out the little plastic rectangle. He studied it carefully before handing it back. Then he checked mine and let us go down the stairs and into the bar.
This was my first full weekend in Portland, and Kit had driven down from Olympia to celebrate my new freedom with me. We’d started out by having dinner with Cookie and her daughter, Silvie, at the Kennedy School. Cookie headed home after that. We moved our party across the river to the Pearl District in search of the perfect dive bar.