"I've got about ten more minutes before I need to get out of here." Gallen placed the file he had under his arm on the table and folded his large frame into a chair. “Close the door.”
There was something about interview rooms that always gave Taya a rush of adrenalin. Like just being here meant she was closer to the hand of justice. She took a seat opposite Gallen and focused on the file in front of her, not the obscenely attractive man she would now be working with. Or the thought of what would happen if she stuffed this up.
“You are Chloe Brown, twenty-four years of age."
Taya nodded. She was twenty-eight, but had always looked younger than her age.
"You were in a foster home in Ramsgate from June, 2011 to October, 2011. You were fourteen years old and Alex Riley was seventeen. He arrived about six weeks after you, in August. There were three other children who were much younger. The foster father was an abusive alcoholic who forced himself upon you while the foster mother turned a blind eye. Riley protected you and kept you safe."
Taya pursed her lips but kept her mouth shut. Her gut told her this was the wrong cover to be using, but she forced herself to hear Gallen out.
“You recently ran into trouble with a boyfriend who kicked you out and took all your belongings. You knew Alex was with The Devils and you've come to the clubhouse looking for him. You have nowhere else to go and no-one to turn to."
Gallen looked up at her, his whiskey-coloured eyes pulling her in. She'd never been this close to him before and now was really not the best time to admire his bottom lip that was just begging to be nipped at. "Questions?"
She snapped her attention back to the task at hand. “I don't think this will work.”
Gallen didn't hide his frustration. “Why did you agree to the job if you weren’t up to it, McGovern?”
“Not me - the cover story.” Her nails pressed hard into the fleshy part of her palms. She had no intention of being the scapegoat for another poorly executed assignment.
“The foster sister just happens to turn up after Riley goes missing? I don't buy it and I doubt The Devils will either.”
“And you have a better idea?”
“A pre-existing connection between you and I.” She sat up straighter and stared Gallen down. It was a lot easier to do after he’d jumped to the conclusion that she didn't have what it took for the job.
Something flickered in those sexy eyes and he leaned forward. "What do you mean?"
“We had a one night stand a few weeks ago, and that's the reason the boyfriend kicked me out?"
Gallen gave a slow nod. “And you’ve come looking for me to help you.” His gaze intensified, sending a wave of excitement up her spine.
“Will Silver go for the change?”
“He will if I do.”
Taya swallowed the smile that threatened to betray how relieved she was she’d backed her instincts and spoken up. They went over a few more details, enough to make her story sound plausible if questioned. Then Gallen removed some photographs from the file and slid them towards her.
“These are the main players in The Devils. Zep is the President. What he says goes, so you need him to sign off on you being in the clubhouse.”
Taya glanced at the picture and wondered whether to tell him she knew all of this from the case files and briefings. She might be nervous at the thought of going undercover again, but she didn’t need her hand held on the basics.
He passed her a second photograph. “Connor is one of the oldest brothers but he’s significant. He was best friends with Riley's father and looked out for him after his parents died. It was Connor who brought him back to The Devils."
Yep, she knew that too.
She clenched her jaw. If she let him do his job, he would trust her more.
But when he reached for the third photograph, she couldn’t help it. "I know all of them. How long they’ve been Devils, and their rap sheets.”
Gallen looked startled.
“You are John Dutton - JD. Came in as a prospect in March this year but quickly proved your worth and received your cut nearly four months ago."
Great, what a way to undermine your new partner. Only Gallen didn’t look bothered. He looked a little impressed.
"Okay. Your ex took everything, including your phone and access to money. So, you’ll be going in with no back up."
Her heart started to thump a little faster in her chest. The Devils clubhouse was in the middle of nowhere and she wouldn't even have a phone to call for help if it all went south.
“Don’t worry. I plan on being at the clubhouse when you arrive, so it shouldn’t be an issue, but an unclaimed woman in the clubhouse is fair game."
"Unclaimed?" Her voice came out like a squeak. She knew what he meant; it was just imagining being claimed by Gallen that had her blood pressure soaring.
"If a brother claims you as his woman, you're untouchable. If not, you're fair game." Gallen's tone was so matter-of-fact, it sent a jolt of unease down her spine. "When you arrive, I’ll say I know you and claim you as mine. That will also give us a chance to keep each other briefed so I can feed any information you discover back to headquarters."
"Right." Taya clenched her hands together tighter, her stomach tensing with nervous anticipation at going undercover again. She had to get inside that clubhouse and gather information for the taskforce. And Jake Gallen was going to claim her as his woman. She wasn’t sure what was more intimidating.
A week had passed since the fire and Taya had been home for two days now. She'd woken in hospital with a tube down her throat. Her lungs still felt heavy and raw, the doctors assured her it would pass. Silver had insisted on at least two more weeks enforced leave before she came back to the taskforce. Her boss at the Federal Police agreed.
Other than doctors, nurses, Silver and the police psychologist, she'd not spoken to anyone since the fire. In fairness, her voice was so hoarse she could barely be understood. She'd texted with her family interstate, but didn't want to face anyone else yet. She wasn't ready to hear what they were saying about her now.
Gallen was alive and well, Silver informed her. That was something. There had been no fatalities and only minor smoke inhalation for some of The Devils. At least no one had died this time. Internal Affairs were hunting for the alleged detective that gave Gallen up.
Alex Riley was still in the wind. Apparently, he'd driven to Brisbane and caught an international flight to London. He'd been thirty-five thousand feet in the air while all hell was breaking loose on the ground.
Taya looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her green eyes looked tired and old. Her dark hair hung limp around her face. The bruise on her cheek had faded to a yellowish, green. She felt about as good as she looked.
A loud knock interrupted her contemplation. She'd told her family not to come and she knew no one else in Sydney. No one that would visit, that is. A prickle of fear kickstarted a surge of adrenalin.
Her gun was locked in the safe at work. She had her phone, at least. A weapon was what she needed. The knock sounded again.
She moved from the bathroom to the kitchen, pulling a drawer out and retrieving a paring knife. It was better than nothing. Standing back from the door, she called out.
"Who is it?"
Jake Gallen was at her door. And she looked like death. Fantastic.
Wake up, McGovern. He's here out of professional courtesy, nothing more.
She stepped back into the kitchen and set the knife down on the bench before returning to open the door.
The beard was gone and he had a week's worth of dark stubble covering his scalp. He wore a white t-shirt and jeans and looked nothing like the hardened bikie. The only thing that hadn't changed was those incredible whiskey-coloured eyes. And her body's reaction to him.
She cleared her throat, hoping it would nullify the thoughts running through her head. "Hey, Gallen."
"Can I come in?"
"Oh, sure." She stepped aside to let him pass, catching a whiff of his cologne. He smelled like sex on legs.
She was thankful she'd tried to feel more human today by getting dressed. It was only a singlet top and shorts, but at least she'd managed to put a bra on.
Gallen was standing in the middle of her tiny lounge room. The unit had come furnished and she'd not added any of her own personal touches to the place. What had been comfortable and practical now seemed sparse and devoid of any personality.
"Can I get you a drink? I'm afraid I only have water or black tea."
"Water would be great."
Taya left to fill two glasses. Why was he here? She hadn't heard from him at all when she'd been in the hospital.
"Here you go." She handed him one glass and took a sip from her own.
"Do you mind if we sit?" asked Gallen.
She puffed her cheeks out. "Of course." She gestured to the two-seater sofa, the only seating in the room.
She waited for him to make himself comfortable before perching on the other end of the sofa.
"How are you feeling?"
Taya took another sip of water. Her throat was still a little rusty and Gallen's presence only made the dryness worse. "I'm okay. Doctors say I'll be good as new in a few more weeks."
"That's good." He cleared his throat. "McGovern, I wanted to thank you for what you did. I have no doubt you saved my life by setting that fire."
"Taya," she mumbled.
She just wanted to hear him say her name. "Call me Taya."
"Oh, sure... Taya."
Warmth spread through her body.
"Anyway, what you did was..."
Stupid, ill-conceived, against protocol...
"I'm sorry I haven't been to check in with you sooner. I had to be debriefed and after nearly nine months undercover, it was a pretty intense debriefing."
"And I wasn't sure if..." He set the glass on the coffee table in front of him with a gentle clunk and turned to face her.
"I mean, I didn't know..."
What was he trying to say?
"Taya, I haven't been able to get you out of my head. And not just since the assignment."
Her heart skipped a beat. She watched his Adam's apple move up and down as he swallowed, trying to find the words.
"I remember the first time I saw you, sitting in the incident room, nose buried in a case file." He smiled at the memory. "There was just something about you..."
"You never even spoke to me."
He ducked his head. "I was undercover and you were new to the taskforce, and a federal cop. I could hardly start flirting with the new girl."
"You wanted to flirt with me?"
Was it possible he was attracted to her as well - for real? Her head swam with questions.
His eyes fixed on a point to the right of her face. "Look, I'm sorry if this is making you uncomfortable. I realise we were undercover and playing a role."
She took a sip of water and placed the glass next to his on the coffee table. Gallen started to speak again, but she wasn't listening. Instead, she reached across and took his face in her hands, relishing the smoothness of his chiseled jaw. His eyes widened in surprise. She pulled him closer, brushing her lips against his.
"I'm not uncomfortable," she said.
He snaked one arm around her waist, the other rested on her thigh.
"You might be uncomfortable if you knew what I wanted to do to you now."
She smiled. "I doubt that very much." His lips pressed on hers and her mouth opened, wanting more. She needed more.
"Taya McGovern, I'm claiming you as my woman."
"Jake Gallen, you'd better."
Her body shook from the inside out, an old panic shutting down her functions. She pulled her knees to her chest, lying where she'd landed on the cheap polyester carpet. Her heart beat so rapidly, it hurt. The darkness in the room was turning black.
She had to stay conscious. One thing at a time. Stay conscious; breathe.
It felt like an eternity, but could have been a minute, an hour. Her heart beat still thundered but the pain in her chest subsided. Oxygen was moving in and out of her lungs. The air smelt of cigarettes and layers of filth. The pieces in her mind started to reform...Gallen!
She needed to move. Gallen had no idea what he would be walking into. She was his only hope.
Taya crawled across the floor until she found the wall. Pulling herself upright, she waited for her eyes to adjust to the dark. A crack of light appeared on the floor. The door! She found the doorframe and ran her hands up and down until she flicked the light switch.
The room was smaller than the one she and Gallen had used to cement his claim over her. There was no bathroom attached. And no windows. A single bed with no sheets, only a blanket and a stained pillow. A small cupboard revealed one long-sleeved shirt draped over the hanging pole. The drawers below held some t-shirts and underwear; a pair of jeans. A pile of dirty clothes sat in the corner. Next to the bed was an overflowing ashtray, a lighter and a bottle of cheap vodka, three quarters full.
Beside the vodka was a small vent, about six inches by five, reminding her of holes poked into the top of a box for an animal; the bare minimum needed to get air inside.
There had to be something in this room that could help her. She fell to her knees and checked under the bed, finding only a crumpled cigarette packet and what looked to be a used condom amongst a thick layer of dust. Back on her feet, she shook the blanket out and checked the mattress and pillow. Nothing.
The drawers held nothing useful either. The top of the cupboard revealed a similar amount of dust to what was under the bed.
Footsteps sounded outside the door. She sprang to her feet, every muscle tensing for someone to burst through the door, or worse - Jesse. The footsteps pounded past then raised voices. Sounded like more than one person. She moved to the door and pushed her ear to the slit between the door and the frame. Muffled and angry. She couldn't make out what they were saying. Had they found Riley?
Was Gallen back? Urgency exploded inside. She didn't need to know what they had planned for him, it was sure to be barbaric. She had no way out, no means of communicating with the outside world, yet she couldn't do nothing. The thought of another cop's blood on her hands was too much to bear. Regardless of the circumstances.
Worse than that, she couldn't stand the thought of losing Gallen. He was the first cop who seemed to understand that what happened in Melbourne was not her fault; who didn't hold it against her as though she was some kind of cursed officer.
Their cover may be nothing more than acting the part for an assignment, but the way his lips had felt on hers, the way her body fit against his and his hands on her was seared into her memory. She needed this man alive.
There had to be a way to get a message to the outside world - to the taskforce.
She lent her head against the door and listened again. The voices were lower but still present. Maybe Gallen wasn't back yet? Maybe she still had time to warn him. She eyed the cigarette lighter and vodka.
The carpet was cheap and highly flammable; the same carpet used in the hallway. There was a kernel of an idea. She grabbed the vodka, placing it in the cupboard and slipped the lighter into her pocket. Pushing the bed into the middle of the room, she turned her attention to the floor. She dug her fingers down between the wall and the carpet. It hadn't been professionally laid and with some tugging along the length of the wall it started to lift. After a few minutes, enough of the carpet had loosened to allow her to start rolling it towards the door, revealing the concrete slab beneath.
She hefted the bed back against the far wall to make room for the carpet to roll to the other side. It stopped where it caught on the cupboard. The cheap chipboard wasn't very heavy and she managed to maneuver it so she could get the carpet past it. When everything was in place, she took the bottle of vodka and twisted the cap off.
It wasn't the best plan, but it was the only one she had. There was no doubt the carpet would light up, and the vodka would act as an accelerant. She began to tip the liquid out, letting it run under the door and out into the hallway. She needed the flames to go in the opposite direction to her. Of course, there wasn't much she could do about the smoke, except pray help arrived before it overwhelmed her.
More importantly, she needed the fire to gain enough momentum to alert the outside world, not just the bikies in the main room. There had to be a signal no one could miss.
Before she could second guess herself, she grabbed the long-sleeved shirt from the cupboard and set the lighter on it. When the flames swallowed most of the shirt, she dropped it in front of the door.
The flaming shirt sat, contained where it fell. For a moment, Taya thought she'd failed. Her plan had been pure guesswork, and it seemed she'd guessed wrong. Should she blow on it to help it along? As she took a step forward, the fire roared to life, chasing the vodka trail into the hallway. The strip of carpet was instantly alight.
Taya stumbled back, pulling the bed onto its side to act as a barrier. She lay down next to the air vent, hoping the tiny source of oxygen wouldn't attract the fire. Panic and destruction sounded outside the room. She'd read somewhere it could take as little as five minutes for fire to engulf an entire house. She hadn't noticed any sprinkler system in the club house, but imagined they must have some form of fire protection. Enough to contain the fire without putting it out altogether, was all she could hope for.
Smoke started to fill the small space. She pushed her face closer to the vent. Please let the smoke be visible outside. Let someone see it and call for help.
She prayed she'd done enough for Gallen to be safe.
Her eyes began to water and the smoke was making her cough. Was that sirens? Her head was pounding. Something was crashing. Maybe the roof was caving in? It was so dark. The smoke thick, engulfing her, blocking the air vent. She couldn't even see a slit of light through the vent.
Stay here. Don't leave.
Whose voice was that? Was it in her head?
She saw Gallen's face in front of her, but had no idea if it was real or just a fanciful illusion. Taya felt his hands on her face, on her hair. Was she dreaming? If this was how she was going to die, she could think of worse ways. His arms tightened around her as everything faded to black.
His lips lingered long and hard on hers when he left her at the bar. The brothers had gathered in the meeting room and Gallen's presence was required. Wolf whistles and crude banter greeted him.
Taya pressed her fingers to her lips. There were certainly a few perks to this job. She set about cleaning up the rest of the clubhouse and tidying the bar. Fifteen minutes later, the bikies spilled out of their meeting room into the main hall.
Gallen gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "I gotta go out, but I'll see you when I get back." He gave her a wink and followed the men out to their bikes. Moments later, the sound of motorcycles roaring to life all but deafened Taya. She finished putting the glasses away and turned back to find Zep sitting at the bar.
"You should put some ice on that." He motioned to her cheek.
She found a clean dish towel and plucked some ice cubes from the freezer. The cold felt good against her cheek.
"Can I get you a drink?' she asked, keeping her voice low and timid.
She fixed the drink and sat it on the bar next to him. Zep took a swig, pursing his lips as the fiery liquid hit his throat.
"So, you met JD a few weeks ago?"
She shaped her lips into a half smile. “I did.”
“Obviously you two hit it off?"
Taya cleared her throat. "Yeah."
"Not much of a talker, are you?"
Even from the other side of the bar, Zep was still pretty menacing. But she needed to stay close to him in order to hear any new developments on Riley.
“JD’s different to the guys I usually date. He knows how to look after a girl.”
Zep nodded, apparently not needing further explanation. “And troublesome ex-boyfriends?”
"JD is kind of the reason my ex threw me out."
Zep took a sip of his bourbon. “I figured.”
"I didn't have anyone else to turn to, and JD was good to me." She started wiping down the bar.
"What did he tell you about the club?"
Taya frowned. Where was this going? “Nothing, really. I asked him about his vest, what the picture on the back was?”
Zep chuckled. “The picture on the back.”
“I guess that sounds pretty dumb, hey?”
He finished his drink, not bothering to agree.
Taya made herself busy, glad that Zep stayed at the bar to take a few phone calls, grunting his responses as his men reported in. An hour dragged by. It seemed the hunt for Riley had stalled.
Eventually, the bikies started to return to the clubhouse, empty-handed. The mood was tense, with more and more of the brothers beginning to suspect Riley had become a police informant.
"Someone find out if his woman is still in London," said Zep to no one in particular. Two of the younger guys jumped up, signalling they were on it.
"What's that got to do with anything?" asked Ray.
"Maybe nothing, maybe something. Just want to know she's where she's supposed to be, not off meeting Hollywood at some island resort."
"Why would he sell his ride if he’d gone off to bang his old lady?"
"I don't know," yelled Zep. "I just want to know where the fuck he is."
"I dunno where he is, but I know someone who might." Jesse burst into the clubhouse, his eyes still full of crazy. "Where’s JD?"
All of Taya’s senses jumped to attention.
"What do you want with him?" asked Zep.
"I'm gonna gut the prick slowly until he tells me where he's stashed Hollywood."
"What are you talking about?"
Taya gripped the bar, praying Gallen's cover wasn't blown. Praying her cover wasn't blown.
"He's a fucking cop."
All hell seemed to break loose as everyone started talking and shouting at once. Taya thought she might throw up. Snap out of it, McGovern! She looked around for something to use as a weapon. She could smash a beer bottle but a piece of broken glass was no match for a gun.
"Shut up!" roared Zep.
Silence fell instantly.
"Jesse! How do you know JD's a cop?"
"I've got my sources," he smirked.
"Don't play games with me, boy." Zep's patience was at an end.
"A detective from the taskforce. He's pissed off with the way the cops are handling the investigation.”
Anger and disbelief collided in her gut. There was a mole on the taskforce?
"And this detective told you JD was a cop."
"Yeah." Jesse lifted his chin, as if daring Zep to question him further.
"What did you give him in return?"
"Nothing," spat Jesse. "I'm no dog."
"It's no secret you want to be the club's enforcer." Connor emerged from against the wall he'd been leaning on. "Enough reason to give Hollywood up to the cops so you could take his place."
“Fuck you." Jesse moved in and raised his fists, preparing to take Connor on.
Connor stood his ground.
"Enough," Zep shouted. "We'll find out soon enough if JD's been playing us. Ray, Brodie, go set the workshop up for an interrogation."
Jesse crowed. "Now you're talking."
They were going to torture Gallen. She swallowed a strangled gasp, unwittingly drawing Zep’s attention. He glared at her.
"Lock her in one of the bedrooms. One without windows.”
“What if she’s a cop too?” said Jesse.
“Then you can do what you want with her.” The fury in Zep’s eyes turned Taya’s blood cold. “But after we’ve dealt with JD.”
Rough hands grabbed her and started dragging her across the room and up the hallway. She wanted to resist but knew she had only one chance to keep her cover intact and try to get a message to Gallen. She let her fear override her need to fight as two of the bikies threw her into a darkened room. The lock clicked into place. She was on her own.
Gallen led her down the hall by the hand, Taya almost jogging to keep up. Abruptly, he stopped and hugged her from behind, his lips nipping at her ear lobe.
"Giggle and call me a bad boy," he whispered.
"What?" She still felt light headed and well out of her comfort zone.
His fingers tickled her ribs. Taya shrieked. "Stop that...” she quickly remembered her line, “you... bad boy."
Gallen reached forward and opened the door they were standing in front of. He swiped her on the backside to get her moving inside. She giggled again as he kicked the door closed. He flipped the lock over and came straight back to her, cradling her face in his hands.
Her tummy flipped as he gently ran his thumb over her cheek. She was still reeling from that kiss and now she was about to melt into a puddle at his feet.
"What happened?" he whispered.
"Huh?" she was staring at his lips, remembering how they tasted.
"Your face? Who did this to you?"
She raised her eyes to his and reality slammed back into her. He wasn't staring at her with lust, only concern. You idiot, you're undercover. This is a job!
She stepped away from his touch, raising her hand to her face. A bruise must be blooming across her injured cheek. "Jesse. You were right, he's a loose cannon."
Gallen sighed. "He's an animal. What happened?"
They took a seat on the bed, side by side and Taya filled him in on what she'd learnt, as well as Jesse's overreaction to her presence.
"Do you think the other clubs are telling the truth about not knowing where Riley is?"
Gallen shook his head. "Who knows? The code of honour between the clubs is pretty fragile at the best of times."
"Could Riley have joined another club?"
"No. There's no way."
She picked at the balled cotton on the blanket beside her. "We would know if he’d become an informant. Wouldn't we?"
"For the New South Wales police, definitely. What about the feds?”
A familiar anxiety started to twist and turn inside her. “I have no knowledge of any other operation.”
The bed groaned as Gallen stood and began to pace the tiny space. He scrubbed his hand over his scalp. His silence only increased the tension in her gut. She'd been here before. She couldn’t let history repeat itself.
She sprang to her feet. "I think we should make contact with the boss." Her words came out too fast and too loud.
"Shh," Gallen stepped closer to her. "Keep your voice down."
"I'm sorry, I just-"
"I know about the shooting."
"You missed the signal and a cop died."
All the oxygen in the room seemed to dissolve. Taya struggled to draw breath. The walls closed in around her and she found herself back in Melbourne, standing over the body of her partner after he was shot by another officer. He was dead because someone had screwed up the communication.
"McGovern!" Gallen shook her by the shoulders, bringing her back into the present. "Pull yourself together or you will get us both killed."
Indignation flared and she pushed him with all her strength. “Go to hell."
He dropped his hands from her shoulders. "That's not what I meant. I know the shooting wasn't your fault."
"Yeah? Well, tell that to the Federal Police."
"You were cleared. The other cop messed up."
"Too bad they told everyone it was me." The bitter taste of betrayal lingered, even twelve months later.
"I get it, the feds hung you out to dry. But that's not what’s happening here. Silver will pull us out if he thinks we’re in over our heads."
Taya held his stare. Could she trust him? Could she trust herself? This assignment had been thrown together so quickly. One wrong move and she would be dead, and Gallen too.
"I'm going to need to get back out there soon and we have to come up with a game plan."
She swallowed the bile that had risen along with her past. "What do you want me to do?"
"Zep will send us out again but he will stay here. You stick close to him. Act like you're afraid of Jesse and some of the others. That way you'll hear as soon as he does if they find Riley."
"Then what? I have no phone, no way of communicating."
"Your job is to gather information. When I get back, tell me you missed me if you have new information and I'll find a way to give you my phone so you can call it in."
She turned the plan over in her head. It wasn't much but it was all they had.
Gallen slipped off his cut and pulled his t-shirt over his head.
"What are you doing?"
Damn if her groin wasn't clenching again at the sight of his rock-hard abs and tattooed chest and arms.
"Having a shower." He motioned to the ensuite. "We just had sex, remember?"
"Um, right." Desire burned.
"Jump in after me, I'll only be a minute." He closed the door and she heard the water start to run.
She toed her shoes off and shrugged out of her over-shirt. Her adrenalin was running high and she knew when this was over, she'd probably sleep for a week. She'd only been on this assignment for a couple of hours but already, the emotional and physical rollercoaster was taking a toll. Who knew how long she'd have to be here? She hoped like hell Alex Riley turned up soon.
Taya jumped at Gallen's voice. She hadn't heard the door open because the water was still running.
"Why would we shower separately after having sex?" He answered her unasked question.
Water dripped down his torso and she resisted the almost insatiable need to catch the droplets with her tongue. He'd pulled his jeans on but left the top button loose, revealing even more of his delectable abs.
That shower better be cold.
The door slammed open with a force that sent it bouncing off the wall, accompanied by a burst of sunlight. "The prick's gone dog!"
Taya pulled the knot tight on the garbage bag she'd just filled and moved back into the shadows. She didn't have to look too closely to guess the newcomer was Jesse. Gallen had warned her he was a loose cannon, prone to violence for the sake of it.
The other bikies gathered closer. Zep stepped into the middle of the group, eyeing Jesse with the thinnest veneer of patience.
"That’s a pretty big statement to throw around, Jesse."
Jesse drew himself up to his full five feet and six inches. What he lacked in height, he made up for in width. His head was shaved bald and covered in tattoos, most of which looked like the work of a home tattooist with second-rate equipment. Just looking at him gave her the creeps.
"The other clubs know nuthin’ about Hollywood."
"It's true, Zep." A taller man, skinny with a bad mullet spoke up. "Shoulda seen their eyes light up when they figured out he's in the wind."
"I'll bet," muttered Zep.
"Don’t prove he's gone dog," said an older bikie Taya knew was Connor.
"Shut up, old man," spat Jesse. "You can't defend him this time."
"Nothing to defend," shrugged Connor. "Hollywood is no dog."
"Quiet," said Zep. "We don't know anything yet."
"Face it, the prick went soft after he got mixed up with that chick last year.” Jesse started pacing. “Prob’ly thinks if he dogs to the cops, he can run away and live happily ever after with her."
A mumble of consensus swept through the room. Taya knew they were talking about Sarah Darcy, Riley’s girlfriend of almost a year. He’d kept her out of the club life and after they split, she moved to London. Word was he'd not touched another woman since.
She felt Connor's eyes on her and picked up a glass and started drying it with a dish towel. Couldn’t be seen paying too much attention.
"Fucking cops!" Jesse was still pacing, eyes wide and crazy. "I'd like to gut every one of those pricks."
Taya flinched, and the glass slipped from her hands and splintered as it hit the tiles beneath her. Idiot!
"Who the fuck are you?"
In an instant, Jesse was in front of her. She willed herself not to react. He grabbed her around the neck, forcing her head against the bar. Glass crunched beneath her feet as the steel grip tightened. Every fibre in her body wanted to retaliate. To put this idiot on his ass. It wouldn't be too difficult either; he was all bluster.
But she couldn’t. Not without blowing her cover. Thanks, Gallen! Jesse wanted blood and she was the sacrificial lamb. He pushed her neck harder against the bench top and she was sure it would snap with any more pressure. The tears in her eyes were from frustration - but they would pass as fear.
"Jesse!” Zep bellowed, “Let her up!"
Jesse released her neck, only to pull her upright by her hair. "I said, who the fuck are you?"
Tears ran down her cheeks. Her face hurt where it had been slammed into the bar, her neck felt like it was pushed out of alignment and her scalp was burning. She’d forgotten how hard it was to play an undercover role so far removed from her true self. Instead of elbowing Jesse in the gut and bringing the back of her foot up between his legs, she willed herself to take it.
"And I said, let her go."
Taya opened her eyes to see Zep with a gun pointed straight at them. Jesse released his grip and she gave what she hoped was a believable gasp before letting her legs give out from under her. She landed on the floor and winced as flesh met with broken glass. The damsel in distress act better be worth it.
"She's looking for JD.” Zep tucked his gun back into his waistband. “Needs some help with her ex."
Jesse glowered at her and Taya recoiled against the boxes under the bar. Thankfully, the rumble of motorbikes echoed through the open door. Please, let it be Gallen.
"Let's see what the others have to say," said Zep.
"Clean up the mess you made," snarled Jesse as he turned and walked away.
Taya waited until the men were gone before she cursed and wiped her face on her shirt; playing the victim made her want to hurl.
Hands on the bar, she hauled herself to her feet, and gingerly wiped the glass pieces from her shorts and legs, relieved to see only a few scratches. A quick survey of the clubhouse confirmed no one was paying any attention to her. She looked around and found a broom leaning against the far end of the bar.
Jesse had stopped pacing and settled against the pool table with the agitation of a caged animal. He had his arms folded across his chest and seemed to be muttering under his breath. She had no doubt he would make good on his threat if he discovered a cop in his clubhouse.
Four more bikies stalked into the clubhouse. Taya was relieved to see Gallen, even though he didn't so much as glance in her direction. Probably for the better, given the state she was in.
"Did you find Hollywood's ride?" Zep asked.
"Was it stolen?"
"Nah, he sold it."
"I told you," exploded Jesse. "He's gone dog."
Zep glared at Jesse with a look lethal enough to stop him in his tracks.
The newcomers explained they'd found the bike being ridden by some kid. His father had bought it for eight grand cash, and Riley had given him strict instructions to lock it in the shed and not touch it. The plan was to sell it on in a few weeks. Except the kid thought he'd show off to his mates.
Zep raised an eyebrow. "He still breathing?"
"Yeah, but he won't be walking anywhere for a couple of months."
Most of the men laughed. Taya chewed on her lip to hide her disgust. Violence was the answer to everything in this world. Alex Riley didn't stand a chance if The Devils caught up with him. As far as Taskforce Ricochet knew, Riley had not become a police informant. So, where the hell was he?
"The father know anything else?"
"Nah. He watched while we dealt with his kid. He would've said if he knew where Hollywood was."
"I tell ya, he's a fucken' dog. The cops have got him stashed in some hotel." Jesse started pacing again. "I reckon we start gutting pigs until they hand him over to us."
"No one's gutting anyone until we find out where Hollywood is," barked Zep. "Jesse, go and blow off some steam without killing anyone."
"Someone get him a woman," said another of the bikies.
Suddenly, Taya felt eyes boring into her. Gallen better get it together because there was no way she was taking the act that far.
"This one will do," said Jesse, starting in her direction.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Gallen walked towards the bar, cutting Jesse off in his tracks. His eyes were hard, the bikie persona firmly in place.
"How do you know Chloe?" asked Zep, not disguising his suspicion.
"We hooked up a couple of weeks back," replied Gallen, not taking his eyes off her. "How did you know I was here?"
Taya shook her head. “I…”
“She came looking for you. Wants some help with her ex."
“I’ll sort out your ex,” said Jesse. “After you finish sucking my cock."
"Back off, Jesse," growled Gallen.
"Why? I saw her first."
"The hell you did." In two long strides, Gallen reached Taya, picked her up and sat her on the bar. "If you got rid of that clown you were living with, then you’re mine, baby."
He pulled her close, pushing himself between her legs and snaking his hands through her hair. Her still-tender scalp was screaming but when his lips brushed hers, it sparked an electrical current from her head to her toes. He smelt like soap and leather and musk. It was delicious.
Her hands found their way to his chest, running them under his vest. Pure muscle tensed beneath his t-shirt. His lips found hers, pressing more firmly this time. A moan escaped as she wrapped her arms around his torso. His tongue swiped across her teeth and she opened her mouth to welcome it in. Her own tongue began exploring his mouth. He dropped a hand from her hair, grabbing her ass and pulling her closer.
She pulled back as the bulge in his jeans pushed against her mound.
"Get a room," muttered Jesse, breaking the spell.
"Don't mind if I do," laughed Gallen, grinding himself against her and sending her lady parts into overdrive.
The taxi took Taya from the train station where the boss had dropped her off, through suburban streets and busy roads until the houses started to thin out. The yards grew bigger, as did the disrepair and piles of junk. Cars seemed to get older as well, as though the newer models were confined to the higher density areas.
Abruptly, the taxi pulled off the main thoroughfare and into a road that didn't appear to be signposted. Taya couldn't see any houses nearby, and empty paddocks and rundown fencing ran either side of an unsealed road. A few hundred meters along, she saw a corrugated iron fence and knew they’d reached the compound that served as The Devils clubhouse.
"You sure this is where you want to be, love?" The taxi driver was giving her a look that was equal parts concern and crazy.
“Yep, this is it.”
"This is as far as I go, love. The address is down there." He pointed towards the gray fence.
"Why can't you drop me off there?" Taya wasn't relishing the idea of walking in the blazing sun. It was early December and the Australian summer was in full swing.
"Don't want anyone writing my license plate down or asking me questions. Bad things happen around here. Lots of bad people." The driver was looking around, as if expecting someone to jump out. "I don't know why you want to come here. Nice girl like you. There's nothing here for you but trouble."
Taya frowned and pulled the twenty dollars Silver had given her from her pocket. She had no handbag or purse. She was wearing denim cut-off shorts, a black singlet top and a green cotton shirt unbuttoned over the top. Sunglasses held her shoulder length brown hair off her face. She was grateful she'd opted for the red converse sneakers rather than the slides she'd been offered.
"Keep the change," she handed him the cash.
"You sure I can't take you back to the station, love? No charge."
Taya glanced at the dashboard clock and saw it was just after three o'clock; two hours since they'd been told Alex Riley was missing. "No, thank you."
She pushed open the door and stepped out of the taxi. The vehicle reversed and disappeared behind a cloud of dust.
Ignoring the insistent thump of her heart and slow roil of acid in her belly, Taya started reciting the details of her cover story in her head as she began to walk towards the compound. The sun was high in the cloudless sky and sweat was already trickling down her back. There was no footpath and the poorly maintained fence barely separated the road from the paddocks. All had a sad, abandoned feel to them.
The traffic from the main road was a distant hum. Occasionally, a bird squawked its annoyance at the heat and lack of trees, breaking up the sound of her footsteps as they crunched along the uneven surface.
Drawing closer, Taya could see the top of a roof towards the back of the compound. It appeared to be made of the same corrugated iron as the fence. An older style air conditioning unit sat on top of the roof, to the right. Taya could just make out a gate facing the road, with something painted in red and black on the front. Of course, she knew the layout of the compound from drone photos, and what each building was used for from Gallen’s briefing, but seeing it in all its harsh reality was another thing entirely.
A rumbling from behind made her glance back. Two motorbikes were approaching; their riders hidden behind helmets and matching bandanas across their faces. As the bikes roared past, Taya stepped back, unbalanced by the sudden speed and explosion of noise and dust. The riders seemed oblivious to her.
At the gate of the compound, the bikes slowed and one sat idling, the rider looking back in Taya's direction. He raised his hand to someone inside the compound and then headed back towards her. Taya halted in her tracks.
Here we go.
The bike came to a stop in front of her. The rider pulled down the bandana and took off his sunglasses, revealing eyes full of suspicion. She focused on the ugly scar that ran down the length of his face, starting above his left eye.
"Who are you?" His tone was hard.
"Um. I'm Chloe." Her stomach turned as nerves raced through her body. She used it to channel a feeling of helplessness. She wouldn't get another chance to make this first impression.
"What do you want?"
"I'm looking for JD,” she all but whispered.
Taya nodded and pretended to look around nervously.
She swallowed hard. “I need his help."
The bikie looked her up and down, his glare as sharp as a steel blade. He spat on the ground, then replaced his sunglasses and bandana. "Get on."
Taya forced her legs to move. She climbed on behind him and hoped he was taking her into the compound and not off to one of the more desolate paddocks to do god knows what.
He nudged the bike forward, lifting his feet onto the foot pegs. She gripped the seat beneath her, unsure where to put her hands. She’d never ridden on the back of a motorbike before. Without warning, he floored the engine and Taya instinctively wrapped her arms around his waist to avoid being thrown off, her heart galloping over the roar of the bike.
Moments later, they were pulling up outside The Devils’ clubhouse. As soon as the engine was cut, Taya slipped off the back onto jelly legs, grateful for solid ground.
"Whatcha found, Ray?"
An older man with dyed black hair and a handlebar mustache stood at the door of the clubhouse. He wore a black t-shirt tucked into black jeans, his cut over the top. A big silver Devils belt buckle broke up the black. His eyes were bloodshot but still managed to send a warning chill down Taya's back. This was Zep, the club president, and person she needed to get onside for this assignment to succeed.
"She's looking for JD. Reckons she needs his help."
“That right?” Zep looked her over and offered a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Why don't you come in out of the heat."
He stood aside to let Taya pass. The air conditioner was working overtime and managed to take the edge off the stifling heat. The windows were closed, covered with shutters Taya knew were designed to keep out bullets more than thieves. They also kept a little of the heat and most of the light out.
As her eyes adjusted, she noticed about seven men inside, all focused on her. None of them were Gallen. This was not a good start.
"What do you want with JD?"
Zep was directly behind her. In her search for Gallen, she hadn't heard him move close. Way to pay attention to your surroundings, McGovern.
She turned around to face the president. “I met JD a couple of weeks ago… and, um…”
Her words were tumbling over each other. She’d been expecting Gallen to be there, to take the lead. Now it was all on her.
The bikies watched her. No one spoke.
She cleared her throat and looked around, relieved to see no one seemed ready to leap at her. "I was hoping he could help me."
"You need someone taken out?" said Ray
Taya jumped at his sudden interjection. "What? No. I just..." She lowered her gaze to the tiled floor. "I need to get my stuff back."
"Back from where?" asked Zep.
"My boyfriend - ex-boyfriend," she corrected herself. "He kicked me out and kept everything. My phone, my clothes, my money."
Silence thundered around her. Her cover story felt insignificant in light of what The Devils were known for - drugs and murder. An involuntary shiver raced across her shoulders.
"What's your name, sweetheart?"
She looked up at Zep. "Chloe. Chloe Brown."
"I'm Zep, you've met Ray." He gestured at the bikie who gave her a ride. "I see your dilemma, Chloe. Your ex is being a prick and you want JD to sort him out for you."
Zep stepped closer and stale body odour and cigarette smoke followed him.
"Problem is, JD's not here."
"Oh..." It seemed like he believed her but was going to kick her out anyway. She couldn’t let that happen. She gave Zep a tentative smile. "Would it be okay if I waited here for him?"
He shook his head. "It's not a good day to be hanging around."
"Um, but..." she stumbled over her words again, forcing tears to form behind her eyes. "I don't have anywhere else to go."
Zep and Ray exchanged a glance. Taya looked around, spying the bar Gallen had briefed her on. "I could help out while I waited. Pour drinks…” She waved at the bar.
He didn’t look convinced.
Her eyes fixed on the piles of empty beer bottles and other rubbish around the room. "I could clean up?"
"Place could use a tidy up," agreed a voice from behind.
Zep sighed as if he couldn’t be bothered to give her any more energy. "You can stay. But keep out of our way."
Taya released the breath she'd been holding. She was in.
“No hits have been carried out in almost twelve months.”
Sergeant Taya McGovern surveyed the incident room and the dozen detectives and police officers who made up Taskforce Ricochet. No-one was looking at her. She gripped the lectern to keep her frustration at bay. Not even Detective Inspector Mitch Silver, who was leading the taskforce into outlaw motorcycle clubs, had bothered to show up to her briefing.
“We need to double our efforts and prove Alex Riley was the trigger man, acting on orders from The Devils’ hierarchy, in five open homicide investigations.”
She took a deep breath. Taya got that the state police weren’t exactly thrilled to have a federal officer playing on their field, but her instincts told her this was more than a tussle over jurisdiction. Clearly, the rumor mill had preceded her arrival last month.
She raised her voice a notch. “So, we go back to the beginning. Re-interview witnesses. Confirm timelines and reestablish motives. Hopefully, if we shake a few trees, something new will fall out.”
“Sorry Sergeant, there’s been a development that has sidelined your strategy.”
Mitch Silver marched through the doors with a presence that demanded attention. Everyone in the room turned. Taya simmered. He didn't sound apologetic. Not only was he turning up late to the briefing, now he was coming in and stealing her thunder.
Stay cool, McGovern.
Rolling her shoulders back, she waited for the boss to get to the front of the room and explain himself.
"Alex Riley is gone."
"What do you mean, gone?" she asked sharply.
"Gone. Vanished." Silver ran his hand over his black crew cut. "And The Devils aren't happy about it."
This was not a good sign. “What were-”
"I can't imagine they would be. Their enforcer suddenly goes AWOL and it leaves them looking vulnerable to other bikie gangs."
All eyes returned to the door at the back of the room. Taya’s heart beat a fraction faster as she watched the man-mountain making his way to join Silver up the front. Jake Gallen had been undercover for eight months, three weeks and six days with The Devils, and usually he changed into civilian clothes for his fortnightly briefing with the taskforce. Not today.
Today, his shaved head and long beard, dirty jeans and faded Lamb of God t-shirt under the leather vest, or cut, marked with the insignia of The Devils motorcycle gang, had him looking every inch the outlaw warrior.
Gallen was an incredible specimen of a man at the best of times, and Taya usually kept her head down, taking notes, when he was in the room to avoid turning to mush under his hypnotic whiskey-coloured eyes. Or worse, publicly drooling over his broad shoulders and tattooed biceps. But seeing him dressed as the ultimate bad boy had her groin clenching something fierce.
If she ignored the heat flooding her face, it would just go away. She was here to do a job, not look starry-eyed at the taskforce’s undercover operative. Stepping to the side, she leaned on a desk, arms crossed, as she allowed Silver and Gallen to take the floor. Gallen locked eyes with her and gave a quick nod.
"As you know, Alex Riley, a.k.a Hollywood, has no known address other than The Devils Clubhouse," Silver continued. "The last time Riley was seen at the clubhouse was thirty-six hours ago, at approximately one o'clock, Monday morning."
Gallen stood beside Silver; the Inspector was not a small man at almost six feet, but Gallen was at least four inches taller, and wider and certainly more intimidating in his current state.
"The Devils were hosting a meet to celebrate two prospects receiving their cuts. The party got under way at about ten. Riley was present and there was nothing out of the ordinary about his demeanor. He was last seen at approximately one a.m."
"It's only Monday, lunch time," said another cop. Taya was pretty sure his name was Richards. She wasn’t a fan. He looked at her chest when he spoke to her. "Is it possible he's found himself a woman and he's shacked up with her?"
"Possible, but unlikely," said Gallen. "They’ve been no women since he ended things with Sarah Darcy." Taya had to admit that was certainly odd behavior for a bikie.
"His motorbike has been spotted - being ridden by someone else.” Silver paused and looked around the room.
"Which just doesn't happen. The brothers are out looking for the bike - and Riley. That's where they think I am.”
Wow, Gallen had taken a risk coming into headquarters still dressed in his cut. Sexy and dedicated.
"Anyone else go missing?" came a question from the floor.
"All the other brothers are accounted for," replied Gallen. "And yes, there are countless suspects who would like to take Riley out, but he was under the protection of The Devils."
Meaning he was untouchable, unless another gang was willing to start a war. Taya suppressed the shudder of horror at the thought of another bikie war. The last one had turned the streets red with blood.
"What’s your theory?” she asked.
“Taken by a rival gang, maybe," shrugged Gallen. "It doesn’t make sense. But there’s growing speculation amongst the brothers that he's turned informant."
"Which means Gallen's cover may be compromised," interjected Silver.
A stone dropped in her stomach. If The Devils figured out who Gallen really was, he was as good as dead if he went back out on the street.
"You pulling him out?" asked Richards.
"Not at this moment." Silver and Gallen exchanged a glance. They had a plan, she could tell.
"We do need another set of eyes and ears in the clubhouse," admitted Gallen. "Even if my cover is intact, they’ll want me out looking for Riley."
Richards leaned forward in his chair. "A transfer or a prospect —"
“Won’t work,” Taya said, without thinking. “Too suspicious.”
Richards scowled at her. If it had been any other cop, she may have felt remorse for cutting him off in front of everyone. The misogynist bastard wasn’t worth it.
"Which is why we have another cover in mind," said Silver. "Riley grew up in the system; bounced from foster home to foster home. One of his foster siblings is going to come looking for him."
Once Taya would have lobbied hard for this job; but that was before the assignment in Melbourne went to hell. A police officer was supposed to have completed their undercover training before taking on an assignment like this. Taya had no idea how many of her taskforce colleagues had the necessary qualification, or experience.
Richards sat up straighter in his chair. "I'm happy to take it on, boss."
Richards was a climber, there was no doubt about that.
"Not necessary, Senior Constable. The cover will have a better chance of success if the sibling is a sister."
Taya’s blood ran cold. They wouldn’t choose her, would they? Maybe for once it was going to be an advantage being an outsider.
All eyes flew to Rebecca Pascoe. She'd been a Detective for over fifteen years, and a general duties cop for ten years before that. In Taya’s opinion, Sergeant Pascoe might be damn good at her job, but with her almost two decades older than Alex Riley, she was hardly a strong choice.
Pascoe's brow furrowed; clearly, she was thinking the same.
"Yes?" Her throat was so dry the word came out in a strangled rasp.
"I understand you completed the undercover training with the Federal Police and have some field experience."
It wasn't a question. Silver damn well knew she’d been undercover. The outcome had resulted in her sudden promotion to Sergeant and her being seconded to the New South Wales Police Force at the first opportunity. Shipped out of sight and out of mind of her federal colleagues.
She felt the weight of a room full of confused and seriously pissed off cops, and an involuntary blush spread over her face and down her neck. This was not going to help ingratiate her with her new colleagues. She tried to swallow the lump in her throat.
"I did," she said evenly.
"Is there any reason you couldn't take this assignment on immediately?"
She had no family, friends or community connections in Sydney. Not even a cat to use as an excuse. Obviously, the boss knew that. Taya shook her head. "No, sir."
"Good. Detective Sergeant Gallen will brief you in interview room three." Silver gave her a brisk nod and moved on to handing out the other assignments for follow up and action.
People turned their attention back to the boss, but she could still feel the tension in the room. Nobody knew her, and therefore nobody had any reason to trust her. Or worse, everybody knew who she was and nobody would ever trust her.
She looked up and caught Gallen’s eye. He gave her a tight smile. It didn’t matter if the others didn’t trust her, it only mattered that Gallen did. And she really hoped he did.
Author of author of gut-churning Viking romance and romantic suspense that always includes good sex and a happily ever after - eventually.