Copyright Susan Amanda Kelly
Big Mike shifted his bulk carefully on the taupe microsuede couch, trying to settle into the watchful immobility and deep silence that used to be second nature to him. Taupe microsuede? Three months ago — before Minnie — he wouldn’t have been able to identify the color taupe, much less identify microsuede. The couch was the color of military-issue khaki, upholstered in the kind of wipeable fabric used on dog cushions. Minnie warned him to Be Careful Of The Taupe Microsuede every time he sat on her couch. Her home was filled with furniture designed for people like her — willowy models who weighed 110 pounds soaking wet. Big Mike frowned as he looked down at his hands. They were fidgeting. He bunched them into fists, placing them deliberately on his knees. He’d rather be pinned down in a firefight in Fallujah than have the conversation he had to have with Minnie about her upcoming trip home for Christmas.
* * *
He heard a key turn in the front door. Minnie. He stood, surprised at how dark the room was. The sun had set sometime in the last hour without him noticing it.
“Big Mike? Sweetie?” Minnie called from the front door. She would have seen his truck in the apartment parking lot. He rented the parking bay right next to hers. He worked in downtown New York but lived an hour outside the city, so he stopped in to visit his woman, most nights, on his way home.
“In here,” he called. The room was dimly lit by dozens of tiny twinkling lights wrapped around Minnie’s Christmas tree, a bunch of dead, four-foot branches tied together with Christmas ribbon. He always thought a Christmas tree had to be… well, an actual tree. He bent and switched on a table lamp. It filled the room with a warm glow.
“You came to take me to the airport! Sweetie, you didn’t have to, but I’m so pleased you did!” her disembodied voice floated through from the entrance. Clunk. The sound of an expensive purse and designer coat abandoned next to the front door. He waited to hear her test that the front door was locked. She didn’t. He frowned. New York wasn’t safe for a woman living alone. New York was even less safe when you were an underwear model with a testosterone-addled fanbase. He’d offered to vet her fanmail — his anti-terrorist training meant he could spot crazy at fifty thousand feet — but she’d refused. She was worried he’d hurt somebody. Which he wouldn’t, not unless he deemed them a threat—
Minnie rushed into the sitting room. She kicked off a pair of red heels and abandoned them in the doorway. They matched the long-sleeved, red sweater dress she wore. It was patterned with white snowflakes — she loved Christmas. Minnie released her gold hair from a messy bun so that it swung free around her shoulders. “There you are!” she said and smiled as if he were a present she’d just discovered under her stick-tree. Wide and sunny. Just for him.
He smiled back, or at least he smiled back on the inside. His smile rarely broke the surface of his face.
* * *
Minnie went straight into Big Mike’s arms. She wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed her face into his chest. Even in the middle of winter, he smelled like summer on a motorbike. “Hasn’t anyone told you it’s snowing outside?” she said, noticing how thin his t-shirt was. He wore old jeans, a short-sleeved, white t-shirt and scuffed biker boots.
Big Mike shrugged. “You look pretty today,” he said from somewhere above her, dropping a kiss on the top of her head. She was tall for a woman, but he was an own-weather-system-up-there giant.
“Thank you.” She might be a bona fide supermodel, but in Big Mike’s eyes, she was pretty. And she loved it. Before Michael, she had always been the trophy girlfriend equivalent of a twelve-point buck. “Down. I can’t reach you up there.” Minnie pushed at his chest so that he’d sit. “Be careful of the taupe microsuede,” she said more out of habit than the expectation it would make any difference to her couch. The expensive fabric was wearing in patches… the patches he always dropped down onto like he was taking cover in a fox-hole. He couldn’t help being six-foot-six of solid bone and muscle, but sometimes she wished he wasn’t so hard on her furniture. Last month, her iconic Jacobsen 3107 chair had collapsed beneath them. After the Jacobsen-chair fiasco, she had instituted a sex-in-bed-only rule.
Big Mike sat down as carefully as his bulk allowed. Minnie immediately perched on his lap, winding her arms around his neck. His face was level with hers. Who knew she had a penchant for men with broad, flattened features, prominent brow bones and shaved heads.
“How was your day, Sweetie? Still keeping the Free World safe?” She feathered his beloved face with kisses. It remained impassive, but she knew he was soaking up the affection. Big Mike was a code she had cracked.
He gave a noncommittal grunt in reply to her question. Most of his work was deemed classified.
“Half of today’s samples didn’t fit me, so Gregore put Gracie in them for the photoshoot. She can shoehorn her bony hips into anything. The only things she puts in her mouth are laxatives and Diet Coke—”
He took her mouth in a proper kiss.
“Mumph—” Minnie pressed up against him, making a happy noise in her throat. He finally let her up for air. “Is that a canoe in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?” she said, wriggling for emphasis. Maybe she should relax her sex-in-bed-only rule. She was going to have to replace her microsuede couch shortly, anyway.
Big Mike tucked her hair behind her ear with an easy, affectionate gesture. “Your hips are perfect,” he said.
To hell with the rule. She’d buy sturdy, rustic furniture carved from whole trees and cover it in durable, brown corduroy. “If we get takeout instead of cooking, we have time for a quickie before my flight.” She pulled his white t-shirt from his belt. Ridged stomach muscles quivered against her knuckles. “I’m going to miss you,” she confessed. She would be spending Christmas with her family on the west coast while he stayed in New York.
His hands covered hers, stopping her from unthreading his belt from his buckle. “You’re not.”
She frowned, puzzled.
“You’re not going to miss me,” he said as if that explained everything. He looked uncomfortable. Most people wouldn’t have been able to tell that from his blank face, but she could read him like an Us Weekly magazine. “I spoke to your father. I’m coming with you,” he said, sucking the oxygen out of the room.
“Wha—” No, she had misheard. “I’m light-headed. I thought you just said that you spoke to my father?” Sometimes being on a permanent diet did things to your mind. Because she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, she had experienced an auditory hallucination, like Joan of Arc. She always figured Joan of Arc had been on a low-carb diet.
“Your father called me. He invited me for Christmas. I have a ticket for the same flight as you. Tonight.” A fractional change in his expression indicated Big Mike was concerned by her reaction. “Do you want me to get you some water? A lite beer?” His hands rested on her ribs to check for movement. “I think you’ve stopped breathing.”
Minnie took a deep breath, her ribs expanding under his hands like bellows. “Michael, I had to go with my cousin to my prom because the boys in my school were too scared of my father to ask me out. Daddy let it be known that if any boy asked me out, he’d end up in a shallow grave in the desert. He dug several boy-sized holes and papered the bulletin boards at school with photos of them.”
Daddy ran the outlaw motorcycle club, Hell’s Crew, on the west coast. Big Mike wasn’t a stranger to that world. He was raised in an outlaw biker club but left it for the army. He always seemed so unconcerned about the prospect of meeting her father that she had concluded Big Mike had forgotten the no-rules reality of the outlaw biker world.
“Daddy has probably dug a large — a very large — hole for you out in the desert somewhere.”
“I have to meet him sometime.”
“Eventually.” Maybe in a decade or two, when Daddy had mellowed a little.
Big Mike rubbed her back in long, soothing strokes. “It’s Christmas; he isn’t going to kill me at Christmas.”
She gave him a grave look.
“I’m not that easy to kill.”
People scurried out of his way on New York streets. It was his height, the tattooed tribal cuffs around massive biceps, blunt features, his shaved head… it was as if everything about him was designed to intimidate. He wouldn’t be easy to kill, but Daddy was very protective of her, and she wasn’t taking any chances with Big Mike’s safety. “I forbid it,” she said, trying to stand. Big Mike held her easily in place with one hand, the other rubbing her back as if he were calming a skittish pet. She was more than skittish. She was one screech away from full-blown hysteria.
“Minnie, you’re not going home without me.”
Most of the time, he was the sweet, kind, sexy, giant darling she adored, but then he would turn into a block of granite on some issue. Why did it have to be this issue?
“You can stick close to me,” he said. “I doubt your father would kill me in front of you. Not at Christmas.” His tone was dry.
“This isn’t funny, Michael.” The thought of not having his giant zen presence in her life was suddenly terrifying. “It’s only Daddy, my brother and myself for Christmas, but what if Hell’s Crew men stop by for a visit? You used to be a member of The Padres. They’ll provoke a fight.”
“I haven’t been a member of The Padres since I was eighteen,” he said. “I won’t fight anyone, I promise. It takes a lot to rile me.”
That was true. His pulse rarely seemed to rise above a zen-meditation blip. Most times, she found his zen presence calming, but other times she wanted to bludgeon him with a lamp to get a reaction. This was one of those other times. Even if she left without him, he could just follow her to the airport and board a plane independently. She could knock him out — her kindly, elderly neighbors had some useful drugs — but eventually, he would wake up and then he’d go to the airport etc.
She cupped his cheeks with her hands. “If anything happens to you, I will never forgive you. Do you understand? Never!”
He turned his head and kissed each palm in turn. “Nothing will happen.”
Minnie let her head drop against his chest. She could hear his heartbeat. A zen-calm blip. It was annoying. “I’m going to relax my no-carbs rule. Else I don’t think I’ll survive three days with you, Daddy and my brother in the same house. Beer, I’m going to drink beer. Lots of it.” Gracie and her snakelike hips could go to Laxative Hell.
One strung-out woman, a red-eye flight, a car rental and a longish drive later, Big Mike stopped the compact in front of Minnie’s childhood home. He looked around. She was an orchid raised in a cabbage patch. The longer they spent on the rutted, dirt road winding through overgrown vegetation to get to the house, the lower his expectations dropped. Her childhood home was a drab single-story house placed too close to a decrepit barn. Both buildings had once been white, but now the paint cracked and peeled from the sides in long, uneven strips. The grass was cut short in a three-foot perimeter around the house. The rest was yellow and knee height.
“We should have insisted on something other than a Prius,” Minnie said. She’d said that every fifteen minutes of the drive here. The car rental agency had screwed up their reservation.
“Only a very secure ex-biker drives an electric car.” He’d said that every fifteen minutes of the drive here. He could use a drink, however, since Minnie had done her best to put herself into an alcohol-induced coma on the flight, he was the designated sober adult.
The front door opened and an older man, about six-two, one-eighty lean pounds, emerged. He was somewhere north of sixty. His face was set in hard lines, his silver hair cut military-regulation short. He wore old jeans, biker boots and a black t-shirt. Big Mike recognized Minnie’s father from the antique-framed photographs in her apartment. His tattoos covered his arms like cloth. In one framed picture, a much younger version of this man posed next to an angelically pretty woman… Minnie’s mom. How had the old coot snared her?
Minnie scrambled out of the car and ran towards the man whose face cracked into a welcoming smile. He picked Minnie up, swinging her around in a full circle before setting her down with great care. Big Mike unfolded himself from the compact, unpacked their luggage and joined them. Minnie was chattering — she was wound tighter than a nervous squirrel — bombarding her father with a deluge of words about the flight, about the car hire, about the trip here, about New York winters compared to Californian winters. Big Mike put his arm on her back and rubbed it. Her father’s gaze snapped up to meet his, over the top of Minnie’s golden head. His eyes were the same intense blue color as Minnie’s, only frostier.
“Daddy, this is Michael Williams. Big Mike.” She looked from one to the other, acting as anxious as a spaniel waiting for a game of fetch to start.
Big Mike inclined his head politely toward her father.
“Nice car. I’m Snake,” her father said. He didn’t extend his hand. Since Big Mike was carrying their luggage in one hand and had dropped his other hand to Minnie’s hip, Snake’s rudeness didn’t matter. ‘Snake’ was a biker name. You earned a biker name. That moniker meant Minnie’s father was scared of snakes or that he was as deadly as a striking snake. Big Mike would put money on the latter.
Snake inclined his head fractionally, barely polite.
“Let’s go inside. Woohoo. I’m parched and looking forward to a beer,” Minnie said with false cheer.
They followed Snake inside the house.
Big Mike looked around. He was curious to see where Minnie had grown up. She had lost her mother young. The interior was stuck in a 70s time warp, with an orange carpet, brown couches and yellowing nylon net curtains on the windows. There was little sign of the wealth he knew Hell’s Crew earned.
Big Mike followed Minnie through to the bedrooms.
Snake stepped in front of him. “Not that one. Next door,” he said, waving to another doorway.
Minnie stood behind her father, mouthing words at him. No! Go! Please! Big Mike walked into his allocated room. He had stayed in army barracks more welcoming. The floor was bare pine. A single bed covered in a thin, nubby, orange coverlet sat in the corner of the room. His feet would overhang the end. The rest of the furnishings consisted of a plain side table and a small bare-bulb lamp. Snake followed him into his room. The door snapped shut. Big Mike tossed his luggage onto the bed and turned, his arms loose and ready at his sides.
“Thought we’d have a little chat before Minnie comes out of her room. Son.” Snake crossed his arms. They were covered with tattoos of coiling snakes. Old, faded-to-green inkings.
Big Mike crossed his arms, knowing his tribal band tattoos were flexing around his biceps. “Thank you for inviting me to spend the holidays with your family.”
“You’re here because Crash said it was only fair to give you a shot.”
A shot? At what? Crash was Minnie’s brother. Big Mike had known him in the army. That connection was the reason he had met Minnie.
Snake continued, “If my girl is ready to settle down, then she can settle down with one of my lieutenants here in California. She doesn’t need to live halfway across the country with a… civilian.” He looked as if that word near-choked him.
‘Civilian’ was the term outlaw bikers used for people who lived inside society’s rules. It was contemptuous. Big Mike stepped in close. “You’ll have to take Minnie from my cold, dead arms, Old Man.” Then he remembered his promise to Minnie. He wavered for a moment, but he forced himself to take a step back. “I’m sorry. We’ll have a nice family Christmas. I’ll grow on you.”
Snake looked at him with disgust. “It’s hard to believe you used to run with The Padres. Did they kick you out?”
He was saved from a reply by Minnie’s high-pitched squeal from somewhere inside the house. “Hammer! Caveman! Bear!”
Big Mike pushed past her father and yanked the door open. Minnie was standing in the sitting room, surrounded by three strangers — all bikers, judging by their clothes and attitude. They were all big men. She looked like Tinkerbell surrounded by ogres.
“Some of my lieutenants didn’t have anywhere to go for Christmas,” Snake said from behind him. “It’s as easy to deep-fry enough turkey for seven as four, so I told them to come on over.”
Big Mike was trying hard, but he was finding it difficult to like Minnie’s father. Minnie finally noticed him standing there. She held out her hand to him, smiling at him, but her eyes were worried. He uncurled his fist to take her hand. “Come and meet Daddy’s lieutenants.”
He was met by a wall of aftershave. It was strong enough to make his eyes water. He blinked, remembering that Minnie always shopped for expensive aftershave for Daddy’s lieutenants. She was kind to everyone. And here they were, three hardened Hell’s Crew lieutenants scrubbed clean, wearing their best jeans and message-free t-shirts, doused in her gifts.
“Everyone, this is my boyfriend, Michael Williams. Big Mike,” Minnie said.
He winced inside. In this world, a woman didn’t have a boyfriend. A ‘boyfriend’ was a civilian term. In this world, it meant nothing. It was open season on Minnie as far as these men were concerned. He yanked her back against him.
“This is Caveman,” she said, nodding at the man to the far left of them. He was about six-four. Wide. With arms covered in coarse dark hair, wiry tufts of it escaping from the top of his black t-shirt. A ragged black beard hid his jaw and neck. His head was shaved bald. Big Mike dismissed him as competition for Minnie.
“This is Hammer.” Hammer was short and fireplug squat. He bared his teeth at Big Mike — his front incisors were sharpened. He had metal piercings running up both ears. Nope, no competition there either.
“Bear.” The final contender looked like a Hollywood film star version of a biker. Tall, fit, neat dark hair and a lantern jaw.
“Good to meet you, Michael.” Bear smiled, revealing perfect teeth. He must have had braces as a kid. “So you’re the one who caught our angel as she fell from Heaven?”
He didn’t sound anything like any biker he had ever met.
Bear continued, “Minnie had the biggest crush on me as a teenager. Always regret not doing something about it.”
Big Mike looked down at his woman, waiting for her to rebuff Bear. Instead, Minnie blushed, a gentle dawn flooding her milky skin.
After dark, they moved outside. A concrete rectangle ran the length of the back of the house. It was more like a prison yard than an entertainment area. Big Mike was starting to understand Minnie’s love of fripperies. A rickety, double swing seat sat at ninety degrees to the house. Minnie perched on it, her legs curled under her. She had changed into fresh jeans and a snug Christmas sweater. It was bright green, patterned with little red Santas that danced across her full breasts. Her hair was loose around her shoulders. Mismatched deck chairs and weight benches were scattered across the rest of the concrete. Bear had captured the deck chair nearest Minnie and was playing remember-when-we with her. Big Mike sat on a weight bench with his back to the wall of the house. Two half oil drums were set up as barbecues on the short edge of the concrete rectangle, opposite Minnie. Light from the two fires caught a pile of empty beer cans in the long grass. Snake, Caveman and Hammer all stood around the barbecue, talking in low voices, one of them occasionally prodding a piece of meat. The smell of sizzling beef filled the night air.
Big Mike heard a bike pull up outside the front of the house minutes before Crash appeared around the side of it. Big Mike had met Minnie three months ago when Crash had asked him to protect his sister from a rival gang during a biker club turf war. Big Mike had agreed because he and Crash had served in the army together. Best decision he ever made.
Crash nodded at everyone in greeting but went over to his sister to scoop her up in a hug. He was taller than Minnie and lean, but there was strength in the corded arms that lifted his sister. Minnie hugged her brother hard. Their hair was the same gold color. Crash might be a psycho, but Big Mike never doubted his love for his sister. Crash would turn up at her New York apartment unannounced to check on her. The scrutiny would have amused Big Mike if he hadn’t understood that failure would be a painful, possibly fatal experience for him.
Crash grabbed a beer from the cooler behind the barbecue and came over to claim the deck chair beside Big Mike.
“You’ve met the Three Wise Men?” Crash said. He had the same intense blue eyes as his father and sister, except his were empty as a winter sky. Crash had reported to Big Mike in the army. Big Mike had known from day one that this soldier was dangerous, but in the army, there was a use for men like him. Not so much in real life.
Big Mike grunted. The other two Hell’s Crew lieutenants had joined Bear and sat in front of Minnie like worshippers before a Goddess. His Goddess who was chugging yet another beer.
“They sure like Minnie.” Crash yanked the top off his beer. “Snake lifted the embargo on her.”
Big Mike had figured that out for himself already. Snake had decided that his choice was to have Minnie in New York with a civilian or Minnie in California with one of his lieutenants. Big Mike and New York had lost the toss. “Your father said you made him invite me. To give me a fair shot. Why?”
Crash shrugged. “I like you?”
Big Mike just looked at him.
“You always were sharp.” Crash toasted him with his beer bottle. “Snake is going to retire. Next year.”
Big Mike thought for a moment. “That means the club leadership is up for grabs.” Hell’s Crew was a criminal enterprise, the equivalent of a business with annual revenue in the millions and no tax burden. A leadership battle would be hotly contested. Motorbike clubs were run like tribal chiefdoms, but that didn’t extend to inheriting the leadership. Crash might not get the job.
“Minnie’s a prize. Any lieutenant who gets the boss’s daughter is going to do well in the reshuffle, regardless,” Crash said.
Snake would make sure that Minnie’s man was well taken care of in the club leadership. Snake would want his daughter with a good earner even though her stratospheric modeling fees meant she out-earned every man here, including himself.
“So you want me here to make sure that none of them have a shot at Minnie…”
Crash looked expectant.
“And you want me to make them look weak in front of your father,” Big Mike said slowly. “You don’t need me to do that for you. None of the men here could take you.” He included himself in that category. Crash had a way of tilting his head and looking at you like a predator might… wondering how you tasted and how fast you could run. It triggered the flight instinct in regular people — their primitive brains took charge and signaled Run!
“Doesn’t look good if I hurt too many of them,” Crash said. “Not political.” Light, dead eyes roamed over him.
Big Mike tried for a brief prayer for patience, but nothing came to mind. He did a quick visual sweep to check his woman was where he had left her, then turned back to her psycho brother. “I can’t do anything overt to your Three Wise Men. I promised Minnie I wouldn’t fight.”
Crash smiled his wintry smile. “You’re going to keep them away from Minnie with words?”
“It’s Christmas, damnit.”
Crash gestured toward Minnie and the three men ranged in front of her. “They look like Rottweilers admiring a lamb chop.” He toasted Big Mike with his beer again. “Good luck with that.”
Minnie’s laugh cut the night. It was in response to something Bear had said. It was a light, happy peal.
Like nails scratching across a damn chalkboard.
Minnie snuggled against Big Mike. Her stomach was pleasantly full of grilled beef and beer. Too much beer, but it took the edge off her anxiety. Big Mike had moved to sit beside her on the swing seat once the food was ready. They had shared a slab of barbecued steak. Big Mike had devoured nine-tenths of it, and she had nibbled at a well-cooked corner of it. Big Mike ate two baked potatoes smothered in sour cream, but only after he sectioned off a piece of plain potato for her. She tucked in against him, eating her food from his plate, not protesting when he pushed another piece of steak onto her side of the plate. She was feeling woozy from all of the beer. Hopefully, the protein would soak it up.
* * *
After dinner, everyone sat quietly, contemplating the night. The sky was strewn with stars. Daddy smoked a cigarette while he scraped the grease from the grills. She loved the scent cocktail of night air, charred beef and cigarette smoke. It smelled like home. Daddy took the grills away to hose them off at the back of the yard.
“The world is moving,” she said to Big Mike, clutching at him.
“We’re on a swing seat.”
She looked down. Sure enough, he was using his foot to make the swing seat rock gently back and forth. “Oh.” Minnie stared at his feet clad in biker boots. Had they always been that large? She changed the angle of her head. They were still large. “You have big feet,” she observed.
Big Mike looked down at her.
“Huge feet,” she said, snickering. She reached up to pat his cheek and missed, batting his ear.
“That’s your last beer.” He gathered her hand in his, kissed it, and placed it on his chest.
Aaw, he could be so sweet. “You’re like a giant, cuddy… cuddly teddy bear,” she whispered, but it came out louder than she intended. Caveman, Hammer and Bear, sprawled in surrounding deck chairs, stared at them. “He looks big and mean, but he’s tender-hearted,” she explained.
Big Mike sighed. “Why don’t you just paint a target on my back?” he said, or at least that’s what she thought he said. It didn’t make any sense, of course.
She beamed up at him, inventorying those beloved, rough-hewn features. “Everyone remarks on how plain you are. My big, plain, cuddy… cuddly teddy bear.” That felt like a tongue-twister. Wait, she didn’t want to hurt Big Mike’s tender feelings. “When I first saw you, I thought you were a four. I held a gun on him and called him Sasquatch,” she said to Daddy’s lieutenants. “But now, if anyone dares call him plain, I tell them that parts of him are a twelve!” She winked, but both eyes closed. “So altogether, he averages a shix. A sex.” She paused and tried again. “More than five.”
Big Mike mumbled some kind of plea to the gods. Crash started laughing. Caveman, Hammer and Bear looked stunned. Maybe she shouldn’t be using her outside voice? She tried to remember what she had said but lost the thread of her thoughts somewhere. Her beer can was empty. She held it upside down, pouring a surprising amount over Big Mike’s jeans. Well, it was empty now.
She crumpled her empty beer can and tossed it on the pile in the grass. “Woohoo!” Well, she tried to get it onto the pile in the grass. It bounced off Crash’s head. Crash only laughed harder. She beamed at him. Her brother had a great sense of humor. “You’re a maniac, but I love you, Crash,” she yelled.
Big Mike spoke, his tone subdued, “She’s like this every weekend.” He made a drinking motion with his hand. “I’m going to get her some help when we get back to New York.”
“Help? Who?” she said, looking around. “You’re great at helping people, Big Mike. You’re smart. Nobody expects you to be smart because you’re so big.”
Daddy’s lieutenants were still staring at her. She was so tired of that behavior from men. “I know, I know. I’m beautiful. Very beautiful. I’m a twelve. It can be hard not to stare. You can bounce a quarter off my ash, but Big Mike sees my inner beauty. Someday, when my ash triples in size and looks like oatmeal in a string bag, I think he’ll still want a piesh… piece of it.”
Daddy’s lieutenants all winced in unison. Minnie turned back to Big Mike, struck by a new notion. “If I’m a twelve and you’re a sex, then together, we’re…” she licked her finger, stuck it in Big Mike’s chest and made a wet, sizzling sound.
Big Mike was laughing as hard as Crash. “We average out at nine, Minnie. And you’re right that I’m still going to want a piece of your XXXL ash.” He bent and kissed her hard.
* * *
Daddy returned, carrying the now-clean grills. It seemed to snap his lieutenants out of the silence they had settled into.
Bear leaned forward. “You dumped me and just about broke my heart.”
“Eh?” Minnie looked around to see who he was talking to but then realized it was her.
Big Mike stopped swinging the swing seat.
Bear was handsome — an eight — but he left her completely cold. “It happens,” she said sympathetically. “It’s because I’m beautiful. Very—”
“Yes, yes. We know that,” Bear said.
She frowned, not liking that he interrupted her. She was finding it difficult enough to follow her serpentine thoughts without interruptions. “I don’t remember dumping you. Maybe you’re just very sensitive for a biker and misunderstood something I said?”
“I’m not sensitive.” Bear seemed outraged.
“Are you sure you’re not tender-hearted too, Bear?” Big Mike said. Minnie beamed at him. Big Mike was always so kind and supportive. She patted his chest.
Bear cursed. “I’m not tender-hearted. Minnie, what I was trying to tell you is that you asked me to the prom. Then after that… nothing.”
“Were you always this rude? Maybe that’s why I dumped you. Although I don’t remember dumping you. If you’re sure you’re not tender-hearted, then I guess I must have dumped you.” She tried to remember that far back, but her mind was a little foggy. It cleared, suddenly. “When Daddy scared off all the boys at my school, I asked you to take me to the prom, but you disappeared! You left without so much as a goodbye.”
“That’s what I just said,” Bear said.
“I might have had something to do with that,” Snake said.
“Bear came and told me he was taking you to the prom. I told him it wasn’t a good idea.”
“He knocked me out and shipped me south,” Bear said. “I was told to stay there.”
“And you obeyed,” Big Mike said in a flat, dismissive voice. He was holding her a little too tightly.
“She’s all grown up now,” Minnie’s father said. “It’d be different now.”
“I don’t think so,” Minnie said. She tried to elucidate all the reasons why Big Mike was the biker for her, but her mind just wasn’t working the way it should. “Would you go to Fashion Week for me?”
“What’s Fashion Week,” Bear asked.
“Exactly. Big Mike goes even though he’s only a four and all of the beautiful people judge him.”
She smiled up at Big Mike, splaying a hand over his heart. He put his palm over it, trapping her hand against him. Loyalty. That was sweet. He reminded her of one of the figurines in her Christmas display village at home. Shrek? No, he wasn’t green. She loved Christmas and Christmas decorations.
“Why don’t we get the Christmas decorations out?” Minnie said. “I love Christmas decorations.”
“I love mistletoe,” she said.
All three of Daddy’s lieutenants stood in unison, scraping their chairs back on the concrete.
She beamed up at Big Mike. “I love decorations.” Had she said that already?
“They’re in the barn. Back, Right-hand corner. The boxes are labeled,” her Daddy said.
Big Mike eased her off his chest and stood. “I’ll get them. You stay here.”
“I’ll help,” Hammer said.
This wasn’t right. She knew there was a good reason for Big Mike not to go into the barn with Hammer, but she struggled to remember it. She needed to stay with Big Mike. “I’ll help, too,” Minnie said, trying to get to her feet. The world swung around her. Whoa. Big Mike steadied her with two hands on her waist.
Her father weighed in. “You come inside with me, darling. I’ve got your Momma’s Christmas Star put away. I’ll need a little help in finding it.” Her father held his arm out to her, crooking it invitingly.
“I love Momma’s Christmas Star,” she said to Big Mike.
Big Mike walked her over to her father. “Go and get your star. I’ll be right back with the other decorations.”
“Snake, change the water on the turkey while you’re in there. I put the Butterball in the sink to defrost,” Crash said. Grinning, he raised his beer bottle to all of them. “Best damn Christmas I’ve had in a long time.”
Big Mike followed Hammer to the barn. They entered via a side door. Hammer felt for a light switch high on the wall. The lights snapped on. The inside of the barn was nothing like the outside. It was the dream workshop of any man who loved motorbikes. He and Snake had more in common than just Minnie. Big Mike admired the tools, the workbenches and the partially stripped, gleaming HD-80 motorbike in the center of the barn. It was a classic bike. Big Mike had a Harley-Davidson at home. Riding it on the weekend, with Minnie behind him, was his second favorite thing to do with her.
He was making progress with his non-violent strategy. Minnie had provided an opportunity by getting drunk, revealing Minnie unfiltered. It could be disconcerting. About now, all of the men were weighing her apparent alcohol addiction against the fact they could bounce a quarter off her ass — until it ballooned — and her connection to their soon-to-retire boss. As Minnie kindly pointed out, people didn’t expect someone as big as him to be smart. He found himself smiling broadly. On the inside.
He headed to the back of the barn to find the Christmas ornaments. He found three boxes of them, stacking them in his arms. He was conscious of Hammer’s location behind him at all times, tracking him without appearing to track him. He was heading for the door when Hammer stood in his way. Hammer picked up a wrench from the open tool chest beside him.
“Snake wants Minnie to come home. I do too,” Hammer said.
Big Mike set the boxes of decorations down on a table. He wasn’t sure if Hammer was trying to intimidate him or really intended to use that wrench.
“We’re not okay with a Padres member screwing Minnie.”
“Ex-Padres,” Big Mike interjected helpfully. He couldn’t correct Hammer on the other point because it was factually correct. Often.
“What kind of man leaves his club?” Hammer asked.
“The independent kind.”
Hammer swung the wrench. Big Mike easily evaded the swing. “Hammer, put that down. You’re wasting your time. You’ve got sharpened teeth and your ears look like you took a shrapnel hit. If Minnie thinks I’m a four, you’ll be lucky to rate a two.”
Another swing. Big Mike bent back under it. He could have pushed Hammer’s arm up at that point and broken it, but he was still hopeful he’d get out of here without breaking his promise to Minnie.
But then he heard Minnie scream from somewhere outside the barn. He responded instinctively, landing a hard right on Hammer’s jaw, ducking past him before Hammer hit the ground.
Minnie was in trouble.
Minnie was standing in the kitchen, supported by Snake with Bear fussing around her. Crash was leaning against a Formica kitchen counter, looking amused.
“What? What?” Big Mike reached for Minnie, yanking her into his arms. “Are you hurt Minnie? Did someone do—”
“There,” she said in an outraged voice, pointing to the floor behind the kitchen table but refusing to look where her finger pointed. He looked from the tip of her finger down, down… to Caveman. Caveman was lying flat on the floor, blood streaming from his nose into his beard. A large, raw turkey rested on his chest.
“He violated my… my sacred space,” Minnie said, the words slurry. He knew the term came from respectful-workplace training her agency gave all their models. It meant personal space.
Caveman blinked rapidly. “I didn’t touch her sacred space, boss. I cupped her ass.”
“Best Christmas ever,” Crash said, almost under his breath.
“Minnie, your ass is still small enough for me. I want a piece of it,” Caveman called from the floor.
“Caveman, have you lost your goddamn mind?” Snake said, banging his fist on the kitchen counter nearest him. “Shut up.”
Big Mike spoke, “How did the turkey—”
“I hit him with it,” Minnie said.
Snake looked stunned. He had obviously never seen his daughter in action. Caveman was lucky she was drunk and her balance was off. She could deliver the best roundhouse kick Big Mike had ever seen, bar none, and he had been Special Forces. Moments like this made him proud of his woman. Damn proud.
She looked up at him. “I thought it was you grabbing my ass, Big Mike, and then I turned to kiss you — still holding the turkey — and I saw Caveman behind me. Ugh.”
She buried her face against his chest. He patted her back gently.
Her voice was muffled against him. “He couldn’t help himself, Daddy. Don’t punish him. I know I’m off-limits to all of your men. But I’m beautiful. Very—”
“Okay darling, okay,” Snake said. “Someone help Caveman up. You come out of here, Minnie. Bear, help me with her.” Big Mike let Snake and Bear lead his woman out of the kitchen. He wanted a moment with Caveman.
Crash reached into a cupboard for a family-sized bag of sour-cream-and-onion potato chips and ripped them open. “Dinner and a show,” he said, leaning back against a counter, fisting chips into his mouth.
Big Mike lifted Caveman to his feet. He propped him against the kitchen table. Caveman tilted his head back, trying to stem the blood pouring out of his nose. Big Mike handed him a blue-checked dish towel.
Caveman dabbed at the blood. “It’s not broken,” he said.
Big Mike rammed the flat of his hand up under Caveman’s nose. He heard a satisfying crunch. Caveman shrieked in pain. “Now it’s broken,” Big Mike said.
Caveman held the dish towel to his nose, tears pouring down his cheeks to mix with his blood. The nose was the locus of the olfactory nerve endings. It was impossible to think or see straight after someone broke it. “Caveman, if you touch Minnie again, I’ll kill you.”
Big Mike grabbed his nose and twisted it. There was another shriek. “You’re going to apologize to her and leave.” Garbled agreement came from under the dish towel. Big Mike released Caveman’s nose.
* * *
Big Mike was rinsing his hands when Snake came into the kitchen, minutes later. “Minnie needs some coffee.” He filled the kettle and switched it on. “Caveman said he was very sorry. A few times. And then he said he had to go.” He looked at his son and then at Big Mike.
“Where’s Hammer?” Snake said sharply.
“He had to lie down,” Big Mike said. Hammer was lying down on the barn floor.
Snake gave him a measuring look. “You say or do anything to Caveman?”
“You tell Minnie that your lieutenants are now allowed to grope her?” Big Mike said.
“The hell they are. You watch—”
“The turkey is still on the floor,” Crash said.
They all looked at the raw turkey defrosting on the floor.
“We could rinse it off,” Big Mike said.
“It’s got Caveman’s blood and snot on it,” Snake said.
“It’s not Christmas without a bird. That was the last Butterball at the market,” Crash said.
“Maybe we can disinfect it?” Big Mike said.
“It’s still hunting season,” Snake said to his son. “Dawn? Canada Geese?”
“A Christmas Goose. We haven’t had goose for Christmas since… since forever,” Crash said.
“Your Momma always used to cook it for us.” Snake scratched his chin. “Can we deep fry it?”
A fat-laden bird and boiling oil were a dangerous combination. “You kill it, I’ll cook it,” Big Mike said.
“You cook,” Snake said. It sounded like an accusation.
Crash offered to fetch the boxes of abandoned decorations from the garage.
“Hammer is still lying down,” he said to Big Mike when he returned, carrying the three boxes into the 70s time-warp sitting room. Crash pulled a green plastic tree out of a box. It had seen better days. Minnie was sitting on the couch, sipping from a vat of coffee. Snake had gone to bed. Bear had followed him soon after Minnie tried to discuss his tender feelings.
“We got that tree when I was six,” Minnie said between sips of her coffee. She had stopped slurring her words.
Big Mike blew the dust off the top of the other two boxes and peeled the sealing tape away. The boxes were filled with red and gold-colored balls and thin strands of matching tinsel, worn to a thread in some places. He guessed Snake had bought the decorations at about the same time as the tree. He wondered what the man spent his money on. “Why don’t you tell me what you want on the tree?” Big Mike said. He wasn’t sure she could stand unaided yet.
“I like giving you directions,” she said, giving him a lascivious wink over the top of her cup.
Still drunk but cute with it.
“G’night kids,” Crash said as he left the room.
Big Mike set to work on the tree.
“It’s going well, isn’t it?” Minnie said. “Well, apart from Caveman, but that was because I am very—”
“Beautiful.” He couldn’t tell her that he had broken his promise. Twice. He would try harder. He hadn’t touched Bear yet. He had only hit Hammer to get to Minnie, and he had hit Caveman because he had disrespected Minnie. Bear was fine. One out of three wasn’t bad. Minnie seemed to be repelling Bear all on her own. He smiled inside.
“I love Christmas,” she said. “It always reminds me of Mom.”
He placed a blue glass ball high on the tree before turning to look at her. The twinkling lights from the tree burnished the soft gold of her hair. Her eyes were big and blue and a little too shiny. “It reminds you of your mother?”
She nodded. She held a pale cream box in her lap. “I don’t have much of her. I can’t remember her face. It was so long ago. I’ve tried, and I think that maybe I remember her, but it’s the face in photographs that I see.”
“She loved Christmas. I remember that much. I love Christmas too.” She nodded. “I think I’m a lot like her.”
He didn’t know what to say to her. He crouched in front of her and held her hands tight in his. “She’s probably up there somewhere looking down at you, thinking that you’re just like her, too.”
“You think so? She was so pretty. Like an angel.”
“You’re very beautiful,” he parroted, teasing her.
“She was a little bit crazy, according to Daddy.”
“You’re a whole lot crazy. You nearly knocked out a man with a frozen turkey.”
She gave him a watery smile. “Here. Put it on the top of the tree.” She pulled her hands from his and handed him the cream box. He took it, opening it gingerly. It held an old-fashioned Christmas tree star, made of glass, wound with silver wire and sparkly beads. He lifted the delicate contraption out of the box.
The star fitted perfectly on top of the tree. It caught the light, refracting and multiplying it. The whole room seemed to glow with soft twinkling lights. It was delicately pretty but lit up the room. Much like Minnie did.
He turned and found her asleep on the couch, slumped to one side, her mouth slightly open.
He picked her up, careful not to wake her. He was going to put her in his bed for the night. There was no way he would let her sleep alone, with Hammer and Bear in residence.
“I love you, Big Mike,” she mumbled.
He stopped moving. It felt like someone had pushed him, made him unsteady on his feet. Cradling Minnie in his arms, he sat back down on the couch. “More than Christmas?” he said.
“More than anything.” Her eyes were shut, her eyelashes dark against her creamy skin.
A sense of rightness came over him, the deep silence inside dissolving. Yes.
“I love you too, Minnie.”
But she was gone again. He headed for his room.
He had everything he wanted for Christmas right here.
Big Mike fastened a towel around his waist and stepped into the corridor, switching off the bathroom light behind him. He padded across the darkened space, barefoot. He was about to enter his room when he heard a sound from Minnie’s room. He paused, his hand on his doorknob. She must have returned to her room to fetch something. He was surprised she was vertical. Her bedroom door opened. He waited. Hammer emerged.
Big Mike opened his bedroom door and checked inside — Minnie was still stretched out on his bed, buck-naked and unconscious. He closed the door behind him, waiting for Hammer to pass.
“What were you doing in Minnie’s room?” Big Mike asked quietly when the man was level with him. Hammer acted as if electrified, jerking like a cartoon character.
Big Mike couldn’t make out much of his face in the darkened corridor, but he caught the flash of sharpened teeth and heard the smile in the voice that answered him. “She was worth the wait.”
Big Mike knew he should count to ten. He knew he should retreat to his room and his woman. He had promised Minnie. But he stiffened his hand and chopped Hammer at the base of his throat, aiming for the Vagus nerve and striking it with just the right amount of force. Hammer dropped to the floor with a loud thud.
Two doors opened into the corridor. Crash stepped out of one and Snake out of the other. They looked first at him and then at Hammer on the floor.
“He dead?” Crash asked, yawning. He still wore clothes, but his feet were bare.
“Unlikely,” Big Mike said.
“You put him down?” Snake asked.
Big Mike didn’t reply.
Snake walked over. He wore loose blue pajama bottoms, his bare chest covered in tattoos, his feet bare. He prodded Hammer with his toe. Hammer remained inert. Snake gave Big Mike a considering look. “He’s not easy to put down.”
“Minnie doesn’t need to hear about this,” Big Mike said.
“About what? I didn’t see nothing.” Crash retreated into his room, closing the door behind him.
Snake started to laugh. “You somehow scare Caveman off and you drop Hammer, but you’re afraid of my little girl?”
“I don’t want to spoil her Christmas.”
“That stuff Crash told me about her helping to take down the TDR club, three months ago. That was true?”
“Maybe she’s more like her Momma than I know.”
“You should tell her that. I think she’d like to hear that from you.”
Snake grunted and turned from him. “Get up at dawn. You can come goose hunting with us.”
“What about Hammer?” Big Mike called after Snake’s retreating back.
“Leave him there. I’ll send him home tomorrow.”
All right. Big Mike stepped over Hammer and let himself into his room, closing the door quietly so that he wouldn’t wake Minnie. He turned the key in the lock. If Hammer wanted a rematch, he wanted some notice.
He pulled back the curtains before he went over to his bed. The moonlight poured over Minnie’s bare skin. She was an erotic fantasy with her long splayed limbs, shadowed curves, and hair flowing across the pillows in a silvery flood. Minnie made a gurgling sound and rolled over, giving him a perfect view of her perfect ass. He dropped his towel and climbed into bed behind her. She was a bed hog. He pushed her a little, so he could claim a share of the tiny bed. She snuggled back against him, all soft, bare skin. He wrapped himself around her and closed his eyes.
He must have been a very good boy indeed.
It seemed he had only closed his eyes for a moment, and they were open again. Big Mike had set his internal clock to wake himself up at dawn. The room was in darkness, his woman asleep in his arms. He ran his hand up her flank, across the taut curve of her belly and cupped a full breast. He buried his face in the nape of her neck and kissed her skin. They were cocooned deep under the covers. She made a soft noise, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, snuggling back into his hold. He wanted to lie there and enjoy the moment, but he had to get up. He dragged himself away from Minnie’s warm, pliable body.
The pine floor was cold under his feet.
“Where are you going?” Minnie said from behind him.
He turned. She was awake, blinking sleepily. “Goose hunting. We can’t eat the turkey because Caveman bled all over it.”
She took a moment to process that. He expected to see her eyes shut again, but they snapped wide open. “Hunting?”
“Hunting.” He took clothes out of his duffel bag. Luckily he had brought khaki pants — they would have to do instead of camouflage.
Minnie sat up in bed, the covers falling to her waist. The chill in the room puckered her nipples. He started dressing despite the siren call of her body.
“Why would Daddy invite you to go hunting?”
“I’m growing on him?”
She slid to the edge of the bed, putting her feet on the floor. “He’s taking you out to a deserted field in the middle of nowhere, and he’ll have a gun. I’m coming with you.”
“You care about me,” he said, wanting to hear last night’s declaration again, in the cold light of dawn.
Her eyes dropped to the covers, her fingers playing with the folds. “Of course I care,” she mumbled.
She wasn’t ready to tell him. He could wait. “Stay in bed. Minnie. He’s not trying to kill me.” But Minnie was up.
“Ugh, I feel sick,” she said in a low voice.
She belched discreetly and trudged doggedly towards the door. “I can still taste last night’s beer.”
She turned, a vision of naked loveliness. He tossed her his t-shirt from last night.
“Oh,” she said but pulled it over her head. It hung on her like a sack, coming to mid-thigh. She still looked edible, but at least if she encountered Bear in the corridor, he wasn’t going to get an eyeful.
She let herself out.
Big Mike pulled on the rest of his clothes.
A loud knock sounded on his bedroom door. “Time to kill something,” Crash yelled through it, sounding cheerful at the prospect.
Big Mike rubbed his face with his hands. That was his future brother-in-law… if his and Minnie’s genes didn’t cancel out the Crash genes, his kids were probably going to be psychos. Like Dexter—
His door swung inward. Minnie came in, dressed in full camouflage. She had her hair tied back in a messy bun. Her skin was grey, her eyes shadowed. He handed her two aspirin he had extracted from his overnight bag. “Take these with water. They’ll help.”
She disappeared into the bathroom and was back soon after. She twisted in front of him, looking over her shoulder at him.
“Can alcohol bloat your ass? Does it look bigger in camouflage? I think it looks bigger.”
His mother hadn’t raised a stupid son. “No. It’s perfect.”
She tucked her hand into his. They went out onto the patio to join Snake, Crash and Bear. Hammer wasn’t there.
“How many geese do I have to down before we can go home?” Big Mike said, sighting over the barrel of his shotgun at an empty sky. The ground was cold and damp. It seeped through his clothes into his bones.
“You hunted before?” Snake didn’t take his eyes from the sky.
Big Mike was careful to stay well back from Snake’s gun. A 12-gauge shotgun loaded with steel shot would do a lot of damage at close range. “Not animals.”
“We need one goose. An eight-pounder will feed everyone,” Snake said.
A bird call sounded. Big Mike brushed his finger along the trigger, clearing his mind, trying to settle into silence, evening his breathing, ready to take the shot, but the sky stayed empty.
“That’s Crash’s new bird call whistle,” Snake said. Big Mike could hear the reproach in Snake’s voice. How was he supposed to know that that was a fake bird call if it was good enough to fool a live goose? He kept his thoughts to himself, picked up Snake’s binoculars and scanned the sky. It was light blue, dawn washing it with pale gold at the edges near the earth. It was reflected endlessly in the stretch of water they huddled alongside. He could have appreciated the isolated beauty of the spot better if he’d been sitting in the warmth of a heated truck cab cuddling Minnie and a cup of coffee. He lowered the binoculars, scanning the other side of the water.
“She’s where you left her,” Snake said.
Big Mike ignored him. There was Minnie, huddled in a deck chair, under a tree, covered in a camouflage poncho. She looked pinched with cold and miserable. He never thought he’d see the day she’d volunteer to come on a bird hunt. She believed her presence was keeping him safe.
Minnie had dispatched Bear with her brother to a hide on the other side of the water. Big Mike had been sent to a different bird hide with her father. A movement on the edge of his vision caught his attention.
Bear was on the move. He was heading east, converging on Minnie’s position. Something swung from his left hand. Big Mike focused the binoculars on it.
The sky was suddenly full of honking geese. Black, winged shapes swirling in a v-formation dropped toward the water. “Incoming,” he said softly. He dropped the binoculars and picked up his shotgun. He fired once, reloaded quickly and fired again.
He heard echoing gunshots from Snake and then from Crash. There was a great cacophony in the sky as birds that had started to land tried to keep flying. Their less fortunate companions dropped from the sky into the water, leaden lumps. He felt sorry for them, but it was more honest than buying a wrapped turkey in a supermarket.
As the geese cleared the area and the honking grew dim in the distance, another sound rose above it. A man yelling loudly. On the other side of the lake, Bear lay in a crumpled heap.
Snake looked at him. “Someone shot Bear.”
Big Mike met his gaze. “I guess I’m out of practice. Steel shot at this distance won’t do any lasting damage. He might have to eat his Christmas goose standing up.”
The blue eyes so much like Minnie’s, examined him for a long moment. Big Mike felt himself being weighed. Assessed.
“You’re not what I wanted for my girl. That’s for sure.” His mouth worked as if he were chewing on his disappointment. “But you’re better than one of those business types I’ve seen pictures of. If she’d been serious about one of them, I wouldn’t have stood for it.” He rose from the hide. “You’re going to look after her.” There was an implied or else in that statement.
Big Mike nodded.
* * *
When they reached Bear, Minnie was already by his side. He was on all fours on the ground, moaning. Minnie was examining his raised butt intently, her forehead creased into lines, holding her hair back from her face with a hand. “Bear, they look like flesh wounds, but I can’t be sure…” She tried to raise a torn section of his pants, but he cursed, so she snatched her fingers back. “Don’t be a baby. I just want to check that your testicles are okay.”
There was another volley of cursing from the man on the ground.
“You need to do something about this over-sensitivity, Bear. I don’t mean to hurt your tender feelings; I just want to look at your testicles. As a friend. It’s a cold morning; I won’t judge you.”
More cursing. Crash arrived, swinging three pale grey, lifeless geese by long, slender necks. He wore waders and had gone into the water to retrieve the birds.
“Fine, if you don’t want my help, then Crash can check your testicles!” Minnie said, clearly offended.
“Best Christmas ever,” Crash said softly.
Big Mike was inclined to agree.
Minnie saw them coming. She scowled and pointed an accusing finger at him. He stopped dead. He hadn’t devised a strategy for this part. He had tried his damndest to keep his promise—
“Michael! Did you—”
“It was an accident. I slipped,” her father said. He walked over to Bear. “I lost my balance. I sure am sorry. You get older…” Bear looked up at him, his face red and creased into lines of pain and disbelief.
Big Mike smiled. It was an outside smile. It rarely broke through. He scanned the ground. There it was. He hadn’t mistaken what Bear had clutched in his fist as he approached Minnie. Mistletoe. Big Mike picked it up and crammed it into his pocket.
Crash looked down at Bear. “Steel shot at this distance. Hmmm. Going to sting when they clean you up, but you’ll live.”
“What about his testicles, Crash?” Minnie said. “He was telling me last night how much he wants to settle down and have children. Maybe you should take a quick peek—”
Bear’s reply wasn’t fit for man or goose.
Snake dispatched Crash and Minnie to the hospital with Bear, with terse instructions. “Let Minnie bamboozle the doctors. She can say her boyfriend had a hunting accident. Bear will agree. No fuss. No police.” Big Mike knew that Bear wouldn’t deviate from the script. You never ratted out your club, especially not to the police. Big Mike accepted that Minnie was the best person to alleviate suspicion — no red-blooded doctor would be able to think straight when confronted by those big blue eyes swimming in the tears she could manufacture on command. Bear crawled into the back seat of Snake’s truck on all fours, groaning.
Crash slid behind the wheel. “It’s a bumpy road,” he said to Bear. Crash adjusted the rear-view mirror, probably so he could best enjoy Bear’s discomfort.
He knew Crash would take good care of his sister, but Big Mike pulled Minnie close and whispered in her ear. “Minnie, call me if there are any problems. Understood?”
“Don’t worry. I’m going to lie to a doctor or two and shed a couple of tears. It’s not like I haven’t done it before.”
He wondered if he should press her for the details of the previous occasions but decided he’d sleep better if he didn’t know anything about them.
“You call if there are problems. I’ll be right there.”
She kissed him sweetly and patted him absentmindedly on the butt before she climbed into the passenger seat. Big Mike watched them bounce down the rutted road. Bear was crouched on all fours on the back seat in a sort of Downward Dog yoga pose. Crash deliberately veered across the road into a deep rut, the truck bouncing on its suspension.
That had to hurt.
* * *
He and Snake drove home, bouncing along on the same rutted track.
“Don’t think it means anything that I told Bear I shot him,” Snake said. “My lieutenants wouldn’t take kindly to someone shooting one of their own. I don’t want trouble between your old club, The Padres, and Hell’s Crew. It’s bad for business.”
Big Mike hadn’t mistaken this for a Hallmark moment between him and Minnie’s father. Anyhow, he had something more pressing to discuss. “Crash wants to take over from you when you retire.”
“I figured that. He’s the best man for the job.”
“He wanted me here so I’d make your men look weak.”
“Smart call. You did that. Three of my best men.”
“Don’t give Crash the job,” Big Mike said.
The truck bucked in and out of a deep water-filled rut, mud splashing the windows.
“If you put Crash in charge, it’s only a matter of time before he ends up dead or in prison.” Both of those options would gut Minnie. “Crash isn’t like other people… he needs boundaries, someone to keep him in check.”
“He won’t stay and work for another man in Hell’s Crew,” Snake said.
“I’ll give him a job.”
“You? Minnie said you do security work.”
“My company trains peacekeepers, local armies, guards utilities in war spots, that kind of thing. Mostly government contracts. Sometimes we need men and women like Crash. If he lives near us in New York, Minnie will anchor him.”
“Us?” Snake kept driving. “We’ll see.”
Big Mike didn’t know if that referred to him and Minnie, or Crash’s future.
Outside the house, Snake retrieved the geese from the back of the truck. “Here.” He thrust the three birds at him. “We eat lunch at two. I’ll be in the barn.”
In the kitchen, Big Mike set the geese on the grey Formica table. His job — his life — was based on meeting primal needs. Food. Safety. Love. People needed to eat, to stay whole and to keep the people they loved whole. It was a simpler world than the one he observed around him.
He found a single, battered cookbook on the shelf above the stove. The pages were yellowed. A couple of even more yellowed recipes for chicken casseroles, clipped from newspapers, fell out. As he paged through it, he found scrawled notes in the margins. Minnie’s favorite. Crash hates Brussels sprouts. He paused at a recipe for eggnog that was rated Orgasmic! He smiled inside. It was the kind of thing Minnie would say. This cookbook belonged to her mother. He used the book to make his shopping list. He managed platoons of men and crises all around the world. He would have lunch on the table for fourteen hundred hours exactly.
* * *
He heard the truck coming up the driveway just as he pulled the geese out of the oven. He tipped them onto white platters and set them in the middle of the Formica table. Their skin was crisp and golden. The smell of roast meat filled the kitchen. He set the side dishes beside the birds. Creamy mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, cornbread stuffing studded with pecans and red cranberries, buttered carrots and boiled Brussels sprouts. Steam rose from the hot food.
Crash and Minnie came through the kitchen door. Minnie looked pale and tired. Crash looked like Crash. Both of them stopped dead, staring at the food on the table. Simultaneously, they closed their eyes and inhaled deeply.
Minnie opened her eyes. Tears filled them. Real tears.
“Minnie?” He peeled off his oven glove. “What’s wrong? Is it Bear? Where is he?”
Crash had an odd, arrested look on his face. “It smells like Mom’s cooking,” he said.
Minnie dabbed at her eyes and gave Big Mike a dazzling smile. “You used Mom’s recipe book.”
Snake came into the kitchen. “I haven’t smelled food like this in a long time.”
Minnie pulled Big Mike’s head down so that she could kiss him. Long and sweet.
He knew he should leave well enough alone, but he couldn’t. “I shot Bear.”
She patted his cheek. “I think you were provoked.”
“I broke Caveman’s nose and knocked Hammer out. Twice.”
Her blue eyes were filled with understanding. “It’s my fault. I asked you to do the impossible, and they provoked you beyond reason. How was I to know that Daddy’s men would lose their collective minds?”
“You’re not mad at me.” This was the only scenario he hadn’t run through in his mind while cooking lunch.
“At the hospital, after I played the distraught, weeping girlfriend and watched the doctors pick the pellets out of Bear’s ass — his testicles are fine — he pulled a tired piece of mistletoe out of his pocket and lunged at me!” She almost sparked with outrage.
“Where is he?” He was going to have to make his objections clearer, to Bear.
“I took care of it. I took the doctor aside and told him that Bear had been feeling down, and on reflection, I thought the gunshot wound wasn’t an accident.”
“You told them he tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the ass?” Big Mike said.
“I told them it was a cry for help. They’ve committed him until a therapist can speak to him. Anyhow, it might be good for him to speak to a trained professional about how sensitive he is. He’s so touchy about everything. I don’t remember him being like that.” She grimaced. “I don’t know what I ever saw in him.” She slipped her arms around his waist and rested against him.
Her words were muffled against his chest. “Daddy, you’re going to have to speak to your men. First, Caveman fondled me and then Bear tried to kiss me. I don’t know what’s come over them.”
Snake was leaning against a kitchen counter, next to Crash. He pushed himself away from the counter, visibly bracing himself. Big Mike realized he was about to confess that he had lifted the club embargo on his daughter.
“It’s because you’re beautiful. Very beautiful,” Big Mike teased. “They can’t help themselves.”
Minnie twinkled up at him. “Anything I said when I was drunk doesn’t count.”
Some of it did count. Very much so.
“Daddy, just remind them I’m off-limits. I’m a one-man woman. I’m Big Mike’s woman.”
“I’ll speak to them,” Snake said. He nodded at Big Mike.
Big Mike nodded in return.
“Let’s eat,” Crash said.
They took their seats at the kitchen table. Snake cleared his throat. “I got something to say.” He looked at Big Mike. “We’re gonna call you Goose.”
Goose. In a biker club, being given a name meant you were accepted. For life.
Minnie beamed at him, her hand finding his knee and squeezing it beneath the table. “Goose! You’ll always be Big Mike to me. Merry Christmas, Big Mike.”
“Merry Christmas, Minnie.” He knew now why he couldn’t settle back into silence anymore. Because in silence, he had been alone. He kissed her softly.
“Best Christmas ever,” Crash said.