Drew looked up from his school sketchbook, the stench of the alley making his stomach roll, and glanced at his father, AKA Trigger or Prez, across the street. His father held some dude’s shirtfront, probably scaring the shit out of him. He could have been a dealer, a junkie, or a pimp, but whatever he was, he owed the Grinders something.
Just another day in paradise, Drew decided and rolled his eyes before returning to his drawing. He leaned the book against the handlebars of his dad’s Harley and made a swooping motion with his pencil under the yellow glow of the street lamp. The line was bold and swift but so was the river he was drawing.
He was good, and not just for a twelve-year-old kid either. His art teacher said Drew had a talent that he’d never seen in a lifetime of teaching. The words had made Drew’s chest flutter with pride a moment before the promise of hope evaporated, taking his pride with it. He’d never be an artist. He’d never be anything other than a biker and for now that meant he ‘kept six’ or lookout for the Grinders. That was his life. He was the youngest member of the Skull Grinders MC, destined to take his father’s place as president one day and no one got out of the Skull Grinders unless they were in a body bag.
Drew glanced up again, hoping the guys were done because he had homework and his top rocker and one percenter patch wouldn’t get him out of detention, but his heart jumped into his throat at the sight.
His dad had a gun pressed to the dude’s temple. Drew swallowed, almost choking as his mouth dried. The guy had his hands up, begging, blubbering pleases and promises to do better. The look on his face was so fear-filled, Drew’s own gut quivered. Drew’s instinct was to stop his father. He hated the way the big man was nothing more than a bully, but when a flicker of movement caught Drew’s eye, he yelled out instinctually.
More movement in the alley alerted Drew that a young boy was following several steps behind the man who had caught his attention, and before Drew fully realized what was happening, the man rounded the corner and was shot to the ground. A guttural shout of pain ripped from the man’s throat as he clutched his chest and fell, the bag of takeout he’d been holding spilling out beside him. The sound of the gunshot registered milliseconds later, loud enough to make Drew’s ears ring. Drew turned his head slightly, and his eyes widened in horror as he saw his father holding the gun, a look of pure satisfaction on his dad’s face.
Tears pricked behind Drew’s eyes and he glared at the still figure on the ground. The little boy stood frozen, hidden from everyone’s sight but Drew’s, staring at his father. A dark spot grew at the crotch of the boy’s pants.
“Nosy shithead.” Drew’s father spat the words at the man lying on the ground as if they were something vile on his tongue, and they echoed off the brick and pavement.
His dad had shot an innocent man and it was Drew’s fault.
“You got a real sharp eye, kid.” His dad spun and walked casually back to the man his MC brothers were roughing up. Bile rose in Drew’s throat and his sketch pad dropped from his trembling fingers, fluttering beneath the Harley’s back tire. He ran for the bleeding man, sliding on his knees at the last second, scraping denim and flesh across the pavement. The others were too busy to notice as he pressed his hands over the bleeding chest wound.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. Please don’t die.” Drew’s voice was a high-pitched whisper that he barely recognized. He looked at the boy. His pants were wet down both legs now. He was no more than five. “Run!” Drew’s eyes darted behind him where his father was still busy. “Run, kid, run!”
The man tried to speak, looking frantically at his boy and Drew leaned closer, hearing nothing but a gurgle escape his blue lips.
“I’ll make sure he’s safe,” Drew said, figuring the man was worried about his son.
Drew stood, his glassy eyes finding his father again. His father’s gun, pointed at the guy he’d been threatening, rang out and that man fell too. A lifeless lump and a vacant stare as the dead man’s head lolled to the side. Drew’s gut rolled and his skull felt like a balloon filled with helium. Tears fell from his eyes as he looked back down the alley.
The kid hadn’t moved. Drew jogged to the kid, grabbing his arm and shoving him behind a dumpster. He put his finger to his lips to tell him to stay quiet. The boy, wide-eyed with terror, nodded. Drew stared for a moment at the bloody handprint on the kid’s arm where he’d grabbed him.
If Drew hadn’t yelled out, the man might have lived and this boy might not have been traumatized—he might have still had a father. Drew whispered an apology to the kid and went back to the father, holding his hands over the wound again, before anyone noticed where he was.
The man’s lips formed the words ‘thank you’ and then he was gone. His eyes were vacant as Drew hovered over him, holding pressure on the bloody hole. Panic welled inside him. The guy was dead and his child, so young and innocent, had seen everything.
“Is he dead, kid?” Drew nodded at his father’s question, looking at his hands covered in sticky blood. “Come on.”
“Hey, I got his patch name, Trigger. Reaper… the kid’s just like a fucking reaper sending them off to the other side.”
Drew didn’t move; his eyes were frozen on his hands. His bloody palms.
“Kid, we gotta move it.” Sirens called out in the distance. “He did good, didn’t he?” his dad said and Mauler, the vice president, made an agreeing grunt. Dingo, his sergeant at arms, howled and barked, but Drew was too numb to move. A family had been destroyed. Somewhere someone was waiting for her husband and kid to come home with dinner.
“Jesus, Trigger. We gotta go. I’m not going down for murder,” Dingo said, making Drew look up. His father walked his bike to Drew.
“He’s earned a drink tonight, eh, boss? Somethin’ strong so he’ll grow some hair on his balls,” Mauler said with a chuckle but before Drew could protest, his father grabbed the scruff of his jacket and yanked him to his feet.
“Get on, Reaper,” he demanded, his eyes showing impatience. “And wipe the goddamned tears from your face. You’re acting like a fucking pussy.”
As they sped off, Drew pressed his face into the back of his father’s leather cut and ignored the loud roar, vibration, and the ruckus of laughter and hoots as they outrode the law.
He didn’t want a drink. The only things he wanted were for the two dead men to be alive again. And for him and that kid to have normal lives.
Drew shot up from the couch, sweat coating his entire body. Hating the recurring nightmare he had at least once a week, Drew threw his legs over the side in frustration and rubbed his bearded face. Goddammit. He needed a drink. Leaning his elbows on his knees and resting his face in his hands, he fought to ease the jitters the nightmare had left. He’d done his time. Drew had served four years in a youth offender facility and had done two more of parole. But no matter how much penance he’d done, no matter how illogical it was to feel responsible when he was only a kid, he’d never be free of the guilt.
Drew rose, looking at the clock. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep but he hadn’t slept more than an hour the night before. Drew stretched his long body before yanking on a pair of black jeans and pulling a black Metallica t-shirt over his head. He shoved his hands through his shoulder-length hair and grabbed the plain leather cut off the back of his kitchen chair.
Shoving his feet into his black, mud-crusted biker boots, he headed for his Harley with only one thing on his mind—rot-gut whiskey. He could afford better, but he didn’t deserve it.
As he started the bike, the rumble of the easy rider filled him with one of the few pleasures he allowed himself, and it made him close his eyes a second before he drove off. There was nothing like having a hog between your thighs, except maybe a woman’s mouth, but today that didn’t interest him. Bad whiskey, straight up, with nothing to cool the burn from his gullet.
The only biker bar in the small town of Fell was mostly empty at just past two on a Wednesday afternoon, which suited him fine. He had no more interest in company than he did a picnic in a field of daisies.
“Fitz,” Trevor, a part owner of Last Resort Bar and Grill, said with a nod as Drew clomped into the dimly lit establishment. “What’ll it be?” The people of Fell only knew him as Fitz since he’d changed his name to Andrew Fitzer after leaving the Skull Grinders MC.
“Ten High, straight up.” Drew threw himself onto a stool and ignored the grimace on Trevor’s face.
“How you stand that shit I’ll never know.” Trevor shook his shaved head and poured two fingers in a glass. Drew waved his hand for more before slumping against his forearms on the bar and hitching his booted foot on the railing of the stool.
“You sell it,” Drew answered with an irritated sigh.
“Only because you ask for it, and I’m guaranteed to empty the bottle weekly and the Iron Code appreciates your business.” He slid the drink to Drew. The Iron Code, the local MC Trevor was a patched member of, was the other part owner of the bar. “You should choose a top shelf in honor of Ray today.”
Drew lifted the glass and saluted before taking a liberal gulp. He clenched his teeth, hissing as the burn turned his gut to lava. Thinking of Ray, the man who had unofficially adopted him after he’d run away from the Skull Grinders, heightened the fire in his belly. He still couldn’t believe Ray was gone.
“Ray didn’t drink, so if this drink was in honor of him pushing up daisies, I’d be slinging back milk.” He shook his head. “Fucking chocolate milk.”
The thirty-something biker with the road name Gunner, for his time in the military, chuckled deeply and put the Ten High back on the shelf. Drew admired his cut with the Iron Code patch on it. They weren’t a one-percenter club like the Skull Grinders and although they were often rowdy and toed the law at times, especially when it came to keeping justice in their town, they did more good than harm. They were the kind of MC that Drew could understand the appeal of. They were a brotherhood that had each other’s backs—a family.
“Any action I should know about?” Drew asked as Trevor swiped the bar with a cloth. He asked every time he came into Last Resort. At Drew’s request, Trevor kept an eye out for any MC members coming into town. Trevor didn’t know which club Drew was watching out for or why and he didn’t ask. Drew sure as hell wasn’t offering either.
“I wasn’t going to tell you this until after Ray’s funeral, but Loki was on a poker run and a couple of Skull Grinders were at one of the stops showing your picture around.”
Drew’s fist tightened beneath the bar. He’d been looking over his shoulder for a decade and had never been mollified by news that they hadn’t gotten any closer and this was why: Drew knew one day they’d catch up with him.
“Don’t worry, he didn’t say a thing and none of the other Iron Code members would either. You know Loki wants you as a prospect. Ever since you fixed up his bike, he’s been bugging me about it. You turned that piece of roadside shit into a highly coveted machine.”
Drew nodded, relieved that he hadn’t been found, but still edgy at how bold the Grinders were getting in their search.
“Hey, Fitzie.” A bleached blonde with blood-red fingernails and a matching fringed leather skirt leaned close. The smell of her cheap-ass poison perfume made his eyes burn like his gut. Her low-cut shirt showed off too much of her sunburned, freckled cleavage.
“What do you want, Layla?” There was nothing friendly about his gruff voice, but Layla only giggled and ran a red talon across one of his fully tattooed arms. He’d done some of them himself and she was always fawning over them. She wasn’t really looking at them then though. She was looking at Trevor with a taunting gleam in her eye. Drew glanced between the two with narrowed eyes.
“Just thinking you might want a little company. My roommate’s out.”
“He’s your son, not your goddamn roommate and no, I don’t want any fucking company.”
“Sheesh, you don’t have to be so rude, Fitz. It’s not like you haven’t warmed my bed a hundred times.” She leaned against the bar, ran her hand up his arm to the bicep, and rolled her eyes playfully.
Drew’s eyes found the bottle of Ten High and focused on it, but he didn’t fail to notice the flicker of discomfort on Trevor’s face as his eyes slid by. The sight of Layla made Drew sick, but the look in Trevor’s eyes made his gut sink. His hand tightened on his glass, his fingertips whitening.
“Three, Layla, three fucking weak moments. Three.” He held up his long paint- and grease-stained fingers to aid his point. “Go home and clean the beer bottles and hash stink from your trailer before your son gets home.” His jaw ticked at the thought of her six-year-old, Brent.
Trevor started slamming shit around behind the bar, but Drew ignored it, lost in thought.
Drew had woken up after his final weak moment to find the boy sitting at the shitty Formica table that doubled as his bed, overloaded with ashtrays and beer cans. His sweet face had been crunched in concentration and his tongue sticking out as he colored on the inside of a pack of cigarettes. Some shit cereal with zero nutrition was getting soggy beside him.
It had been like seeing himself at that age. He’d stayed, made the kid a real breakfast, and taught him a bit about drawing, but then he’d left, getting out of Layla’s filthy trailer before she got her lazy ass out of bed. He dropped by often to check on Brent, and when his mother was shit-faced he’d take him to have dinner at the diner and then to the cliff house to paint, but that was as far as things had ever gone between Layla and him.
“Asshole,” Layla spat, letting her hand fall from his arm, and waved to Trevor for a beer. Trevor growled as he slammed a can of Coke on the bar.
“Get home and clean up for your kid, Layla, or this’ll be your last drink here ever.” Trevor’s hand flexed when she huffed, but she nodded.
“Fine.” She grabbed the can, mumbling, “You’re both assholes.”
Drew took another swig of whiskey. That I am, Layla, that I am.
“Don’t you pick up the kid from school in an hour?” Trevor crossed his thick arms, staring Layla down. Drew knew Trevor looked out for the kid too.
“He ain’t fuckin’ yours, Gunner, so mind your own business.”
Drew scratched his beard, watching the bartender’s teeth grind. Perhaps there had been a possibility Brent was Trevor’s, but Layla had fingered some guy from the next town over who’d been unfortunate enough to stop at the diner where she worked one night after having one too many. He was too decent to ask for a DNA test, but not decent enough to do anything more than pay child support. He never saw the kid.
“This place is my business,” Trevor said and leaned one of his bulky arms on the bar so he could get closer to Layla. “No alcohol for mothers driving to pick up their kids is a company policy. It’s also a club policy.” His long finger stabbed the bar top as he made his point. Drew knew Layla had wanted to be part of the Iron Code for years, and when Trevor refused to give her his property patch, she attempted to become one of the club whores. That didn’t go over well either and she’d been out in the cold, nothing more than a hang around.
“I’ll just go somewhere else.” Layla flipped her hair and headed for the door, wiggling her ass.
“Don’t fuck with me, Layla. I’ll call child services.”
Layla gave Trevor the finger. “Try it, that asshole already did.” She pointed at Drew and walked out, lighting up a cigarette as she did. Drew shook his head.
“You did?” Trevor’s brows rose, and Drew mentally chuckled at the man’s surprise.
He’d done his best to fly under the radar over the years, to keep his good deeds—however insignificant—as quiet as his sins. If he had any reputation at all, it was for laying low and not getting involved.
He was sure Trevor would be shocked to know that Drew had donated millions of dollars in commissions to Victims of Violent Crimes, the charity he’d founded when he’d sold his first piece of artwork six years ago when he was only twenty. But not nearly as surprised as he’d be to learn that Drew was the real artistic genius in town, and that he’d only hidden behind his friend and mentor, Ray Moore, to keep his father and the other Skull Grinders from ever finding him again.
The low-lit bar brightened a moment as the door opened and slapped shut. When Trevor’s eyes widened from their usual half-lidded state and he smoothed his beard and black t-shirt, Drew knew someone had walked in when Layla left and that someone was female. Drew had the urge to look with Trevor’s reaction, but not even Julia-fucking-Roberts would interest him that day. Then some dick playing pool smashed his cue across the table, and Trevor rushed his leather-clad ass to the trouble. He was burly, muscled, and broke men in half without breaking a sweat. He needed no help, even if Drew was edgy and could use the distraction. Besides, all Trevor had to do was remind the unruly patron he was destroying Iron Code property and things would end quietly.
Drew glanced at the stool beside him as it was gently moved aside so someone could lean against the bar. An expensive female scent wafted up his nostrils. Why was it he couldn’t go to a fucking bar in the middle of the day to get shit-faced and get some goddamn peace? There was ten feet of bar, but the woman chose the part closest to him.
He glanced to the side, his gaze scanning the woman from the bottom up and not making it to her face as she was looking toward Trevor and the ruckus. She was short, and wore a flowered skirt, cream blouse, and wide-brimmed hat that was only suitable for a fancy-ass garden party or visit with the damn queen of England. She wasn’t someone who belonged in a biker bar, let alone one that was affiliated with an MC.
“Can you tell me how to get to Tonalonka Camp?” she asked, her voice honeyed but with a velvety tone that was nothing like the kind of sickly sweet voice Layla used to get a man’s face between her thighs. He curled his lip.
Big city stink, prissy-ass clothes, and a sweet voice meant to lure someone into a false sense of security. It had to be that fucking reporter who’d been hounding him.
“How many times do I need tell you, lady? I’m not going to talk to you and if you set one high-heeled shoe on the property, I’ll toss you off it onto your city-girl ass.” Drew chugged the final swallow of whiskey and stood, the stool scraping back loud enough to be heard over the scuffle at the pool tables. His six-foot-four frame towered over the woman. She took several steps back and gasped, but he ignored her and walked out of the bar.
He scared people all the time. He was tall, inked with most people’s nightmares and pierced, and had perfected a scowl he used to keep people at a distance, particularly women. Only women like Layla braved it, and as if on cue, she was touching him again before the bar door slapped shut behind him.
“Sure you don’t want some company?”
A snort was his only reply. Why he’d ever put his dick in that… his thought halted. He knew why he’d fucked her. He deserved nothing better than Layla, the whore of Last Resort. Men like him made their beds and needed to shut the hell up and lie in them.
Then again, Trevor seemed to have a thing for her, so maybe Drew was missing something.
“Come on, Fitz, I’m horny.”
“Go flirt with Gunner, Layla. You two seemed to have some long overdue business by the look of things.”
“Pfft, whatever. Gunner’s a prick.”
Drew’s long legs straddled his hog, and he revved it until his jaw vibrated. He didn’t look back as he peeled out of the lot, not even to see if the bitch from the big-city paper had followed him. She’d never keep up anyway.
As the scenery flew by, Drew tortured himself further by finishing the sequence of events in his mind that he didn’t get to see when he woke too soon from his nightmare.
“This your drawing, Drew?” His teacher held Drew’s sketchbook open to the picture of the river he’d been working on several weeks ago. The one he’d dropped in the alley. It had a tire mark across the top. Drew stared so hard at the paper in his teacher’s hands, his eyes blurred.
He swallowed hard and looked back at Mr. Marks, noting his thick brown mustache twitched anxiously. Drew’s gaze swung to the tall man in the brown suit beside him. The suit’s eyes were hard, eager, and greedy.
“You a cop?”
The man’s brow rose and his lips pressed slightly. “Yeah. Detective Dick Brighton.” He shoved back his suit jacket and set his hands on his hips, as if daring Drew to remark on his name.
Drew nodded slowly. He wouldn’t lie. Not about this. He’d seen the news. The dead man had been an off-duty cop and his young son had been so traumatized he was left mute. Drew also knew the police had his prints. His bloody hand had left them on the kid’s arm.
“It’s mine, Dick.” Drew narrowed his eyes at the detective, playing the part of badass so well even his dad would be proud. “How’d you find me?”
“The sketchbook is from our school board.” His teacher’s voice was higher than usual and it shook, forcing Drew’s eyes back on him. “And I saw you working on this drawing in class a few weeks ago.”
“You’re going to have to come with me, Andrew Trigger.”
“Detective Brighton, he’s a good kid. He really is,” Mr. Marks said pleadingly. The detective snorted.
“He’s just another punk kid vying for a place with the Skull Grinders.” He shoved Drew forward as Drew looked back at his teacher, and the place that had made him feel normal, for the last time.
“Actually, Dick, I’m the future president.” He wasn’t bragging, although it probably sounded that way. Maybe if he was in jail for the rest of his life he’d never have to pull a trigger himself.
Drew glanced at his wrist where the Skull Grinders ink used to be as he idled at a stop light. The scar was ugly, always a reminder of where he’d come from and who he was. He may be a good-looking son-of-a-bitch, or so he’d been told, but in his soul, he was as ugly as that scar. The rest of the tatts that covered his arms like sleeves were his way of owning his inner demons.
He revved the bike and sped ahead to cut off a pretentious-looking guy in a BMW eyeing him scornfully. Drew gave him the one-finger salute while driving off. He just wanted to ride, get Ray off his mind, and take in the fresh air. But no amount of riding could rid him of the thought that sat just beneath the surface. Addianna would be coming. His Addi, probably still wearing pigtail braids and cutoffs.
Addi would come for her uncle Ray. And for better or worse she’d stay—at least the rest of the summer.
Ray’s letter, fresh in his mind, made Drew open the throttle and fly down the highway. The wind burned his eyes, the speedometer made his heart soar, but his promise to Ray anchored him to Fell County, even when instinct told him to get as far away as possible.