GRIT: A Spartan Riders Novel

 

grit

A SPARTAN RIDERS NOVEL

by J.C. VALENTINE

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Gabby Morgan isn’t looking for love. Not even a little romance. Following a rocky past that she’d just as soon forget, she’s determined to focus on the future. One that most certainly doesn’t involve the tough-as-nails, short-on-words, hot-as-hell biker…or his kid.

Blake Mahone may not be done with women, but he’s finished with relationships. Then Gabby Morgan enters the picture. She’s flawless, refined, and as his kid’s teacher, way out of his league. She acts like she hates him, but her eyes tell a different story. Before he knows it, Blake finds himself hot for teacher, and he’s more than ready to learn all her secrets. Now all he has to do is convince her to give him a shot…without getting them both killed in the process.

 

PROLOGUE

 

There were two things in life that Blake Mahone hated: cheaters and liars. As luck would have it, he was staring at both in the middle of his living room in the form of his rabid now-ex-girlfriend who he’d, crazily enough, considered marrying once upon a time.

He must have been drunk the last decade, because no way in hell would he ever consider such a life-altering mistake if he hadn’t been living his life looking through a pair of rose-colored glasses the whole time.

Jodi was so enraged she was practically foaming at the mouth. And for what? Because he’d asked her where the fuck she’d been the last two days?

When a woman like her—a self-proclaimed wild child—ditched out on her boyfriend and kid without so much as a fuck ya later, there was shit that wasn’t being said.

He didn’t have to strain to figure out what she’d been up to.

The two days’ worth of grease matting the thin, platinum-streaked hair that made her look like one of the house bunnies who preferred working a stage rather than something more fitting of a mother, suggested that, wherever she’d been, she hadn’t bothered to shower. The dark makeup smudged beneath her eyes and the remnants of cheap, frosted-pink lipstick staining parts of her chin and right cheek painted a rough picture that he didn’t have the time or inclination to bother considering.

Put it all together with the extreme weight loss and toddler-sized clothes, and what he’d been trying to avoid for months was finally too garish to ignore.

In truth, it’d been a long time coming and, at this stage in the game, all Blake needed to know was that his bank account had been drained to nothing, and the woman who should have been home caring for their son was now standing in front of him looking like something from a George A. Romero flick, screaming her head off like a lunatic while their son slept not twenty feet away.

At least he hoped he was sleeping.

“Keep your goddamn voice down, Jodi.” Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to hold steady. The last thing he wanted was his kid witnessing this train wreck. Some things in life shouldn’t be seen, especially by kids.

“Quit fucking telling me what to do,
Blake
!” Jodi’s shrill voice ripped through the room, piercing Blake’s ears.

Instinctively, he looked to the opening of the hallway, praying like hell his son stayed put.

“What’s your problem, Jodi? Haven’t I already given you every damn thing?”

With an indelicate snort, she scoffed. “You call this”—she waved her hands around to encompass the house he’d busted his ass to buy for her— “giving me everything? If I wanted to live like a hillbilly, I could have just stayed at home with my parents.”

“You mean that shithole you were so desperate to leave that you practically leaped onto the back of my bike?” He should have left her to rot in that damn trailer.

“That should have been your first clue. Anytime a girl throws herself at a man’s feet, it’s not for his heart.”

“Actually, my first clue should have been how fast you hit the grass and spread your legs.”

“You’re such a bastard, Blake,” Jodi chortled, her voice too high, her eyes wild. “You think that just because I let you fuck me for ten years that makes me yours?”

Taking a long, hard step toward her, Blake leaned in with narrowed eyes, his tone lethal. “No, I thought pushing my kid out that shriveled snatch might have done the trick, but that was before I realized you were nothing more than a common whore.”

The slap she landed on his left cheek turned his head sideways, but he deserved it. Still… “That’s the one time you get to do that,” he growled. “Do it again, you’ll regret it.”

A touch of fear flashed across her face before she reclaimed some of the earlier brawn she’d stormed in with. “What are you gonna do, huh,
Prez
? Beat me bloody then have your boys put a bullet in my head and bury me in a shallow grave?” Her laugh was grating. “Oh, but I forgot, you’re too good for that now. Can’t get your hands dirty,” she said with a mocking wave of her hands.

“Keep pushin’, I might make an exception.”

“Empty threats, Blake. You and your club are too fucking pussy to do a damn thing.”

The fine thread that held his temper in check snapped. “Then why the fuck are you still here?”

Leaping into his face, she surprised him with her quick reflexes. “Because I wanted to see the look on your face when I told you that I’m leaving your sorry ass! That’s right, baby, I found me a real man. A man who has more money and more balls than you ever had, and he’s going to take care of us.”

It took Blake a moment to catch up to what she’d said. She hadn’t made it more than two steps toward the hallway when he’d wrapped his hand around her stringy bicep and towed her in front of him. Chest to chest. Eye to eye. So she could feel the heat of his anger and the depth of his warning when he spoke.

“Don’t. Even. Think it. Bitch.” She raised her free hand to slap him again, but he caught it mid-air and twisted, pushing her arm behind her back and up between her protruding shoulder blades until she cried out. “Ash stays with me.”

“He’s my son,” Jodi said through clenched teeth.

Blake twisted her wrist harder, taking pleasure in the sudden wetness in her eyes. “You forfeited the right to call him your son when you decided to leave him alone while you ran off to get doped-up for two days.” When he’d come home from a long ride to find his son home alone, soiled, living off whatever he could reach from the kitchen cabinets…There weren’t words strong enough to describe the level of outrage he’d experienced. Blake had never been the kind of man to put his hands on a woman, but for her, for what she’d done, he was willing to consider it.

“Fuck you! You can’t stop me from taking him. I’ll call the cops!”

Pressing his nose to hers, Blake’s voice pitched so low and rough, it bordered on animalistic. “I wish you would, bitch. One look at you and your ass will be behind bars, and you know it.
So don’t. Fucking. Press. Me.

Watery eyes darting between both of his, she must have read the truth, because after a minute, he felt what was left of her muscles go slack. With a violent wrenching motion, she shrugged him off.

“Get the fuck off my property,” Blake told her with more calm than he felt. “And don’t let me see you around here again.” Her gaze darted in the direction of Ash’s bedroom, the course of her thoughts clear. “You’re dead to him. To us.”

Licking her dry, cracked lips, she asked, “What will you tell him?”

“Whatever the fuck I want. Now go.”

She lingered by the front door, appearing to think it over. Second thoughts? Too fucking late. She’d made her choice, now she’d have to deal.

But where Blake was thinking of their years together and the son they shared, it turned out she was still only thinking about herself.

“What about my stuff?”

Incensed by the question—hell, the grating sound of her voice—Blake strode toward her with purpose, crowding her out the door. “See that?” He pointed beyond her toward the curb. “Trash pickup is in two days. I suggest you get here early.”

If looks could kill…

“I can’t believe I wasted my life on you.”

“Me either, darlin’.”

Making a sound of disgust, she spun around and stormed down the porch steps toward a dark SUV with heavily tinted windows waiting for her at the end of the long drive, calling over her shoulder, “You can’t keep me away from him forever!”

“You bet your boney ass I will,” he muttered to himself. Filling the doorway, arms spread out and palms pressing hard against the jambs, Blake stared into the driver’s side windshield, feeling the heat of whoever sat behind the wheel’s stare and giving it back tenfold.

He didn’t break his stance until the vehicle was out of sight, and when he finally turned to head back inside, he found himself staring down into a pair of upturned, gunmetal-gray eyes that matched his own.

With a thumb stuck in the corner of his mouth, his short,
Toy Story
pajama-clad legs pressed tight together at the knees, he said in a small voice, “Daddy, where’s Mommy?”

Expelling a heavy breath, Blake ran a hand over his face, a feeling of helplessness sliding through his chest like motor oil. In all his years, he’d never once considered his life heading in this direction, but there he stood, a single father with no idea where to start or what came next.

But when he managed to open his eyes, he realized one thing: There would never come a day that he would lie to his son.

Shutting the door behind him, he scooped his little boy up into his arms and held him snug against his chest as he carried him back to bed. “Okay, little man, it’s like this…”

 

 

ONE

 

First day jitters. They weren’t reserved just for the kids.

              Gabby Morgan stood just inside the doorway to the classroom, a large smile plastered across her heart-shaped face as she greeted parents and their children.

              The first day of kindergarten. Her first year teaching.

              Ever.

              She’d been on top of the world when she’d finally finished her degree—nearly a year ago—but now she just felt sick. Somewhere between the parking lot and the moment the doors opened, she’d lost her edge.

              And she couldn’t lose her edge.

              Kindergarteners were a breed unlike any other. They could smell fear.

Or so she’d been told.

              Hell, maybe she should have just kept her expectations low and taken the management position at the diner when she had the chance. But that was a death sentence all its own, and Lord knew she already had one too many of those hanging over her head.

              A thirty-two-year-old woman living in her parents’ basement wasn’t what she’d dreamed of becoming. But circumstances dictated that particular necessity and she couldn’t really complain. At least she had a roof over her head.

Besides, she couldn’t take another day working on her feet for eight hours straight. Just thinking about it sent phantom bolts of pain shooting down her spine. Reflexively, she reached back and rubbed her tailbone, her fingers finding the raised scar with practiced precision.

One day of hell. Months of recovery. Countless hours looking over her shoulder. Every dream she’d ever had, flushed down the drain.

             
Goals.
She needed to keep hers in mind because no way in hell was she going to spend the rest of her life working a dead-end job and sleeping in a mildewed, spider-infested basement in order to save on rent and utilities. It was high time she put down some roots. A person couldn’t hide forever, right?

              Teaching had always been her dream job, but due to circumstances out of her control, that’s all it’d been. Until now. Now it could very well be her salvation. Stability. A source of security in a world where something so seemingly simple was hard to come by. One thing she would never be again was helpless.

Gabby looked around, taking in the pleasant sky-blue walls, brightly-colored posters, and orderly shelves and thought, yes, she was in a good place in her life. Finally, she was going to look toward the future, put down roots. She was going to have a good life if it killed her.

And if her past caught up with her, it very well might.

But she couldn’t dwell on what-ifs. She had a classroom to prepare.

Before she knew it, Gabby was surrounded by children, directing them this way and that, handing out tissues, ensuring parents they’d be in good hands. Once the final bell had rung and the last child was through the door, she turned to her class and took a moment to observe the chaos.

Twenty-two six-year-olds raced back and forth, weaving their way through the group-style tables, knocking into the mini-chairs as they played tag or tore apart what was, just an hour ago, a well-organized play area.

It took her almost a week to get everything just the way she wanted it.

She sighed deeply, wondering just what she’d gotten herself into this time, yet at the same time, she couldn’t help from smiling because they embodied everything she’d ever wanted for herself—excitement, contentedness, zest for life, and a happiness that was ingrained into every moment they experienced.

Children were everything light and good in the world.

That’s how she knew she was going to be all right. Teaching almost two dozen kindergarteners wasn’t going to be a cake walk—not by any stretch of the imagination—but it
was
going to be the best and smartest choice she’d ever made for herself.

Clapping her hands together, she attempted to call the room to order. When she saw that only a select few took notice of her command, she brought her fingers to her lips and let loose a loud whistle that brought every single little body to an instant standstill.

Eyes wide, mouths agape, they stared at her in shocked awe.

“Cool!” a couple of the boys praised.

Girls giggled.

Several made failed attempts.

Gabby fought a smile.

“Okay, boys and girls, let’s find a seat.”

A fresh wave of chaos erupted as they scrambled to follow orders. Several minutes later, Gabby introduced herself then proceeded taking attendance. Sharp, high-pitched child voices took turns shouting “Here!” until she reached the last on the list.

“Ash Mahone?” When there was no answer, Gabby frowned and scanned the room, repeating, “Ash Mahone?” a little louder.

When she spotted the only empty chair in the room, her frown deepened. Who missed their first day of school? Just because it was a half-day didn’t mean it didn’t count. With a shake of her head, she marked him absent and moved on with the morning.

 

***

 

“Very nice,” Gabby praised a little girl with wild, strawberry-blonde hair. “Your mom is going to love it.”

“I’m gonna put it on the ‘frigerator,” she said proudly.

Patting her on the shoulder, Gabby moved on to appraise more pictures. It was an easy morning. Instead of jumping right in, she wanted to focus on getting the kids settled into a routine that was otherwise, for most, something new and scary. Once they’d tagged their seats and cubbies with their names and established the house rules—Respect, Responsibility, and Readiness—she’d decided to give them all a break and passed out some coloring pages. It was her idea of an icebreaker. Not only did it allow everyone to socialize easier, but it enabled her to get a sense of where they were at in their development, how they were with rules, et cetera.

She was knelt down between two students, giving them tips on how to color within the lines, when the door to the room swung open.

Her head popped up to see a boy, who she assumed to be her missing student, Ash. Immediately, he struck her as much older than his peers. Not in age, but appearance. There was a hardness in his eyes—dark, stormy eyes set into a round, cherubic face with a smudge of what looked to be grease on his right cheek. His hair, a fair wheat-blond color, was wild and unkempt, as if it had never met a brush, and his clothes were shabby—tattered blue jeans with one knee torn out, an orange t-shirt with a breast pocket that was ripped at the corner and what looked like moth holes down by the hem. His shoes, though, were brand new, heavy black boots with thick soles that reached up around his ankles.

Everything about him screamed trouble.

With not much more than a glance at her, he trudged across the room, past the rows of tables, and looped his book bag on a hook in the last available cubby as if he’d done it a hundred times. Then he surveyed the room again, located the only remaining empty chair, and took it without so much as a peep.

Aside from a cursory glance, the other students paid him no mind, but Gabby wasn’t about to turn a blind eye. She was of the mind that a child’s future was shaped by his childhood, and if this kid was already on the wrong track, what did that say about the rest of his life?

“Mr. Mahone,” she said sternly as she pushed to her feet and caught his eye, “meet me at my desk please.”

With quiet confidence, he strode to the front of the room and looked her straight in the eyes when she spoke.

“Do you have a reason for being late?”

“My dad was taking care of some business,” he said in such a straightforward manner that Gabby was stunned. What kind of kid his age spoke like that?

“Business? What kind of business?”

“That’s not really your business. Ma’am,” he tacked on.

She should have been upset, but he spoke without an ounce of attitude. No, he was just blunt…and insanely mature for his age. It struck Gabby that of all the students in the room, this one was the one she’d have to keep a close eye on. For a brief moment, they stared each other down, though not with contempt. More like they were trying to figure each other out. Or more like, she was trying to figure
him
out. Ash just looked as if he was bored and wanted nothing more than to return to his seat.

Drawing in a deep breath, Gabby reminded herself that she was in charge here. She also reminded herself that she was speaking to a six-year-old. Snapping a tissue from the box on her desk, she extended it out to him. “Well, Ash, since this is the first day of school, I’ll let it slide. But school is for learning, so I expect you to be here on time from now on. Deal?”

Scrubbing the smudge from his cheek, he nodded once, sharply. “Deal.” Then, without waiting to be dismissed, he returned to his seat and opened a fresh packet of crayons.

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