She started walking across the cracked concrete, and I followed her, studying the scene. There was a largish group of women arranging food on long tables back against the building. They all worked together smoothly to put together the meal, and I got the impression that every movement was well rehearsed—they must do this a lot.
That sort of surprised me, although I’m not sure why. I guess I’d pegged the parties as one hundred percent debauchery, but even sex fiends have to eat. At least my baked beans and fruit salad fit right in, because this spread wouldn’t be out of place at a church social. Apparently some things are universal, and potlucks are one of them.
Off to the right was a big fire pit built out of curved concrete landscaping blocks. The blackened smoke streaks and enormous pile of firewood stacked behind it made it clear the club used it often and well. Past that was a long patch of grass that I wouldn’t call lush, but it seemed to be holding its own despite the presence of a big wooden play structure complete with swings, slide, and rope bridge to a tree-house. The latter had been built into the branches of an enormous tree with a trunk that had to be nearly six feet wide. Old growth. Probably predated the building.
“Ladies, this is London Armstrong,” Darcy said as we reached the tables, which was surrounded by bustling women wearing property patches like Darcy’s. “She’s with Picnic.”
Several of the women stilled, studying me with sudden intensity. I glanced around, wondering what I’d done. A small brunette with riotously curling hair stepped forward, grinning at me. I’d met her before … What was her name? Marie. That was it. She’d shown me around Pawns the first night my crew had come in.
“Hey, London,” she said brightly. “Good to see you again! Sorry if it looks like we’re acting weird, but Picnic doesn’t usually bring women around here. Well, not the kind of women who bring fruit salad with them.”
I rolled my eyes, because I knew exactly what kind of women he liked to hang out with, and I’d be willing to bet some of them weren’t old enough to know how to make baked beans. You didn’t make the beans, either, my brain pointed out caustically. Jealous much?
Well, I could have made them if I wanted to, I insisted right back.
“Um, London? You okay?”
Oh, crap. I’d zoned out in the middle of a conversation again. I really, really needed to stop doing that. I smiled brightly and pretended I wasn’t a giant dork.
“Reese and I are dating and he wanted me to come to the party,” I told her, holding out the plastic bowl like an offering. “And I don’t believe in coming to parties empty-handed. Now how can I help?”
Marie looked impressed, and I realized I’d passed some sort of invisible test. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t care. It was just nice to be surrounded by friendly faces, because despite the fact that the Reaper men had been good to me—for the most part—they were still scary.
“I’m Dancer,” said a tall woman with long hair, dusky skin, and a slow smile that screamed sexy. “I’m Bam Bam’s old lady. Horse is my brother, and we practically grew up in this club.”
“I met Horse,” I told her, smiling. “But I don’t think I’ve met Bam Bam.”
“He’ll be here tonight,” she said, her voice soft with something I couldn’t quite read.
“Horse is my old man,” Marie chimed in. “He’s a handful, but he’s a good guy. Most of the time, at least. Pic give you a gun yet?”
“Has Picnic given you a gun yet?” she asked, as if it were a perfectly reasonable question. I shook my head, wondering if I’d somehow missed half the conversation.
“Just sort of seeing where things stand,” she said, smirking. That made no sense at all, so I decided to ignore it.
“Hi, I’m Em,” said a young woman with brown hair and Reese’s eyes. I recognized her immediately from the photos around his house and felt a sudden burst of nerves. This was his daughter. The one who’d moved to Portland last year, leaving him with an empty nest.
Why did I suddenly feel like I was in a job interview?
“Hi,” I said. “I’ve heard all about you. I didn’t realize you lived close enough to come to a party, though. I thought you were in Portland with your …” I fumbled for the right word, because she didn’t seem old enough to use the term “old man.” But I was pretty sure he was more than a boyfriend, and they weren’t married. Awkward, trying to figure out how to say things.
“My old man is Hunter,” she said, her eyes sparkling as she said his name. “He’s here for the meet. Bunch of clubs coming together, but that doesn’t have anything to do with us. Your only job here is to have fun, okay? Let’s go find you a drink and we can talk. I want to get to know the woman who’s moved in with my dad.”
“I wouldn’t say we’ve moved in together …”
“Have you slept there more than one night?” she asked, her voice challenging. I nodded. “Well, that’s more than he’s done with any other woman since my mom died.”
Damn. No pressure there.
Em took my arm and pulled me over past the tables to where several plastic garbage cans held silver kegs surrounded by ice. She grabbed a red Solo cup.
“Sure.” Not that I’m a particularly big beer fan. Usually I drink wine, but it seemed the polite thing to do and I could nurse it through the evening. I pulled out my phone while she primed the pump, wondering why Reese never answered my message. He’d told me to text him when I arrived. Nothing.
“You waiting to hear from my dad?” Em asked, holding out the cup. I shoved the phone back into my pocket, nodding. “He’s probably welcoming the other officers who traveled here. It’s important—otherwise I’m sure he’d be out here with you already. As the president, he has certain things he needs to do at events like this, but he obviously trusts you to handle yourself. Want to sit down?”
“Sounds good,” I said, noting that she hadn’t gotten a cup of beer for herself. Hmmm … Should I have accepted her offer? Maybe it wasn’t considered appropriate to have a drink so early? A quick, surreptitious glance around told me other people had already hit the beer.
I decided I was overthinking things. Sometimes people just don’t feel like drinking, and if I kept worrying about doing something wrong I’d go crazy. We found a spot at a picnic table near the playground, and she sat down, straddling the bench to face me.