More than a friend, really. Each of the club’s ol’ ladies had become her chosen family. Sisters of the heart. And one of their sisters was about to add another little one to the next generation of Handlers. Hence the baby shower planning meeting.
“Yeah,” Toni said. She and Shell had become instant friends almost from the moment they’d met when Toni took over the diner she’d inherited from her parents. The diner Shell worked at. “I’ve got the food and drinks covered. Ernesto agreed to cater for us. Holly is on desserts, of course, and she’s going to be running the show, day of. Shell, you and Chloe have decorations covered. Jazz is bringing the mommy-to-be around two, and our dear brave Stephanie here has come up with some games to play.”
Steph rolled her eyes as Toni and Shell snickered. “I’m having a hard time picturing Izzy playing any game that doesn’t involve beating someone bloody, but I’m giving it my best shot. Actually, since her due date was yesterday, I’m really hoping she’ll just go into labor before the shower.”
Izzy was going to make a…interesting mother, to say the least. A kick-ass tattoo artist who also happened to be an underground MMA fighter—though not for the past nine months—Izzy wasn’t exactly the PTA-joining, minivan-driving type. In fact, the pregnancy had been an astounding shock in the first place. Despite her less than maternal ways, Izzy was truly a phenomenal friend and all-around amazing woman. Shell had a feeling boy or girl, Iz was going to raise one incredible kiddo.
“Um, excuse me, Miss Toni?”
All three women turned toward the timid voice coming from the slip of a girl who stood near their booth, staring at the ground.
Toni’s expression softened, and she shifted to face the young teen. Her ratty sweatshirt hung off her small frame, and she wore jeans with torn knees. Not the fashionable kind, the old and worn kind. “Lindsey, what did I tell you about dropping the Miss?”
The girl shrugged her slight shoulders. Hanging in straggly strands down her back, her long auburn hair would be gorgeous if it had a good scrubbing and someone to style it properly.
Shell’s heart squeezed at the sight of the girl. She’d appeared at the diner a few days ago asking for a job. Since she was only thirteen and under the legal working age in Tennessee, Toni’s hands were tied. But of course, Shell’s compassionate friend found a way to help the girl without officially hiring her. She’d given her small jobs, taking out the trash, wiping tables, refilling napkin holders, and after each task had been completed, Toni gave the girl a meal and a little bit of cash.
Shell’s first thought was that the girl was a runaway and the authorities should be contacted. Toni had been reluctant but eventually agreed to call the sheriff’s department. Before they’d had the chance to place that call, Lindsey had sworn up, down, and backward she did not run away from home. She claimed to just be from a poor family and had begged them not to call the police.
Toni seemed to believe that about as much as Shell did, but Lindsey’s insistence on having a home limited their options. Toni hadn’t wanted to call the police regardless of Lindsey’s wishes. If it turned out the girl wasn’t lying, the cops would most likely call in child protective services, which wasn’t always a good thing. They needed more information before they acted, but details about herself were not something Lindsey dished out.
“You all finished with the trash?” Toni asked softly when it became apparent the gun-shy girl wasn’t going to speak again. Due to a rough past of her own, Toni had a soft spot for all troubled teenagers, but this girl seemed to have wormed her way into Toni’s heart more than most.
“Yes, ma’am.” Lindsey still hadn’t glanced up from where her tattered sneaker rubbed at a small scuff on the tiled floor.
“Oh no, ma’am is even worse than miss. Just Toni. Please.”
Lindsey nodded without looking up. She seemed as taken with Toni as Toni was with her, but she shut down when in a group. Or around men. So far, Shell hadn’t seen any signs of physical abuse, but she certainly had the skittish nature of someone who’d been mistreated.
“Well, thank you for coming around again today, Lindsey. You really saved me a lot of time and made it so I could get some other work done.” Toni dug a few bills out of her pocket and held them out.
Finally, Lindsey peeked up at Toni with a small smile on her face and two pink cheeks. “Thank you, ma—uh, Toni,” she said, snatching the money and holding it in a tight fist as though someone might try to snatch it from her at any point. Would they? Was that this poor child’s reality? Clinging to the lifeline of five dollars?
Whatever the reality of her situation, Lindsey seemed to be struggling just to make it through each day. Hopefully, Toni would be able to break through the girl’s wary exterior soon and provide more help than a few hot meals and a couple dollar bills. If she had a family in need of assistance, Toni would most likely move heaven and earth to provide it. If it turned out Lindsey was a runaway, well, Toni would probably let the girl move into the diner.
“Will we see you again tomorrow?”
Back to focusing on the floor, Lindsey nodded.
“Great. And, Lindsey?”
The girl tensed but gave Toni her attention.
“You have my phone number if you need anything, right?”
“Anything. At any time. And I mean that. I hope you’ll use it if you need it.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, then scurried out the front door.
“Gosh, that poor child,” Stephanie said, a hand pressed to her chest.
With a sigh, Toni nodded, her brown eyes following the girl as she darted across the parking lot. “Tell me about it. I’m trying to get some more information out of her, but she’s pretty locked up. She swears she isn’t homeless, but I’m worried. Do you think she’s lying, Shell?”
“I don’t know. Something seems off. Just breaks my heart.” Shell said as she tried to envision how difficult life would have been as a young teen on her own. It’d been hard enough surviving without help in her early twenties.
Across the diner, Shell’s own daughter let out a squeal of laughter as she sent her Barbie doll diving over the edge of a table. Shell couldn’t imagine a future where she’d kick Beth out of the house or one where Beth felt the need to run away. No, that little girl knew just how loved and cherished she was, no matter who she became or what she did. Hopefully, there was someone out there who felt the same about Lindsey, and if not, she had no doubt Toni would work her magic on the girl.
Shell’s lips curled as she watched her child entertain herself. Without thinking, her hand automatically moved to rest on her stomach. Though Beth was conceived in a traumatic manner, she’d been a blessing in ways Shell never could have imagined. And now that they lived with Copper, her daughter finally had the father she’d been denied for the first four years of her life.
Since moving in with Copper near six months ago, Shell—and Beth, for that matter—had never been happier. The man was attentive, affectionate, protective, and sexy as all get out. Shell hadn’t known one woman could have so many orgasms and still function.
Life was great.
Well, it had been until yesterday…
“Hello? Shell? Earth to Shell, come in Shell.”
She blinked. Toni’s form morphed into view as she waved her hand in front of Shell’s face. Her face heated. Both Toni and Stephanie were staring at her with expectant gazes from across the booth. “Sorry, uh, what did you say?”
Steph laughed. “Well, we said a lot. First, we asked if you were bringing Beth to the shower. Then when you didn’t answer, we asked if you were listening. When you still didn’t answer, Toni said she saw Copper running around the parking lot naked. When that didn’t even get your attention, we gave up. You good, girl?”
“Sorry, got lost for a second thinking about Lindsey. No, Beth and Copper are going on a daddy-daughter date tomorrow afternoon. I think I heard something about Frozen II and a big tub of popcorn.”
Toni pressed a hand over her heart. “Aw, he’s the cutest. Who the hell would have thought that giant, gruff, beast of a man would be the best daddy in the world?”
Shell smiled. She’d known. Of course, she’d known. How else could she have fallen in love with the man?
“Speaking of daddies,” Stephanie began, which had Toni groaning up at the ceiling.
“Please, if this is some sex story about you calling Mav daddy, just stop now. We don’t want to hear it. There’s not enough bleach in the supply closet to scrub an image like that from my brain.”
Shell giggled as she nodded. “She’s right, Steph. We love you, we love Mav, and we love that you’re all out there with your sex life, but there’s a limit to what our ears can handle.”
Face red, Stephanie tried to scowl, but her mouth couldn’t turn down since she was laughing as well. “That’s not what this is.” She paused, tilting her head. “Though you give me ideas. Anyway, I was just gonna ask who you think will be next?”
“Next?” Shell asked as she glanced over at Beth again. Her daughter still happily played with her dolls while munching on the French fries Toni had made her.
“Yeah, next on the baby train. Next to get knocked up. Next to repopulate the earth.” Steph sipped her coffee.
“Okay, I think we get it,” Toni said as she shook her head. “Well, we all know it’s not gonna be you.” She shot a pointed look in Stephanie’s direction.
“Nope. Not me. I’m uber careful about that shit. Babies scare the tar outta me. They’re all tiny and vulnerable.” She shuddered.
Shell snorted. “They’re actually a lot harder to kill than you’d think.” She shot Steph a wink.
“Well,” Toni said as she waved her hand back and forth. “It’s a dumb question anyway because we all know it’s gonna be you, Shell.”
“What? Me?” she squeaked. “Why do you say that?”
“Uhh, because you’re an awesome mom, you love kids, and you’ve mentioned a few times that you want a sibling for Bethy.”
“Not to mention your ol’ man is an old man,” Steph said as she shoved a ripped off chunk of muffin in her mouth.
“Thanks,” Shell said in a droll tone as her stomach fluttered. This conversation hit a little too close to home.
Toni bumped Steph with her shoulder. “He’s not old, he’s just older than Shell. The man is still sexy AF and probably will be when he’s eighty.”
True. So true.
“Well, we’ll see,” Shell said, pasting a smile on her face. It felt forced, fake.
“Yeah, we’ll see all right,” Steph said with a laugh. “We’ll see you get all big when you grow a monster-sized mini-Copper inside you.”
Despite her unease, Shell managed to chuckle. “We haven’t talked about it much actually. I’m still taking the pill, so…” She shrugged, hating the lies.
But she wasn’t ready to voice the truth.
“You’re crazy. That man can’t wait to knock you up.” Steph shook her head. “I give it until March. If you’re not carrying prez junior by March, I’ll…”
“Ohh, this could be good. You’ll what?” Toni said, turning her interested gaze on Steph.
“Yeah, what are you gonna offer me, Steph?” Shell waggled her eyebrows.
The bell above the entrance jangled. Glancing at her phone, Toni said, “Who is that? Zach isn’t supposed to be here for another forty-five minutes.” She stuck her head out the side of the booth to get a better view of the door then stiffened. “Shit,” she whispered.
“What?” Shell asked.
Across the booth, both Toni and Steph grew rigid and tense. Who the hell could it be? Shell stood slightly and glanced over her shoulder to where three men dressed very similarly to their own men strode into the diner. MC cuts, biker boots, bandanas, chains.
But one very big difference—the Chrome Disciples patch on each of their cuts.