From his perch on top of the Harley Fat Boy, Caspar waited Silas out as he looked toward the front gates of the Defiance Motorcycle Club’s headquarters.
The darkness had already started descending by degrees. Hard to differentiate day from night, but there were subtle differences. Lately, more differences than before, but if anyone else but him noticed, they didn’t say shit.
“How’s she look?” Silas asked finally, then let smoke drift out of his mouth before blowing it in a frustrated stream when Caspar said, “Fine.”
“Cut the shit, Cas.”
Caspar burned when Silas used that nickname; his hands itched to go around the guy’s throat but he focused instead on the rasp in Silas’s voice. “Those’ll kill you.”
Silas snorted at the running joke, threw the butt on the ground and reached for another. What with the general dearth of sunlight and food, plus the constant fucking fighting—for both fun and survival—cigarettes were the safest things in this new post-Chaos world.
When Silas lit up the next cigarette almost immediately, Caspar took pity on him. “She looks the same. Thin, though.”
Silas didn’t look the same. He looked older—worn, with deep lines around his eyes and mouth. With his long hair pulled back tight, it made his sharp cheekbones look more severe than ever. And he was way too concerned with an old girlfriend.
“She ask to come here?” Silas asked.
“Can’t talk to an unconscious woman,” Caspar offered, but they both knew Tru had been marched here cruelly by the Kill Devils MC, because she’d made a choice.
The rules had always been simple here—you lived and died by your MC. Men were in charge, women weren’t.
He didn’t know if Tru had been violated, but that’s what typically happened when a woman rejected the bond offer.
He’d wanted to kill someone when he’d heard that, but couldn’t show his hand. So he pretended he didn’t give a shit, the way he always did. The way it had to be.
Silas nodded. “Stay with her. Let her know she can hang.”
Caspar raised a brow, asked, “What’re we tellin’ her?” and Silas shrugged, said, “Tell her everything. She knows the deal. If she’s smart, she’ll finally goddamned accept it.”
Tru not accepting the bond offer had nothing to do with her being smart. Tru was smarter than most; that meant she was considered trouble. The only thing saving her up to this point had been her father’s position in the Defiance club. The man had been a sergeant at arms, an Enforcer no one fucked with. His daughter had as much respect thrown to her as a woman in this society could.
Caspar nodded. “Why can’t Roan take care of his own shit?”
“He’s on patrol. It’s all you, brother.”
Brother. That was the biggest joke of all. They all knew Caspar as the bastard brother of Silas’s clan, bastard child of Silas’s father, Lance. Caspar had been dropped off when he was ten after his mother died, and was taken in by Lance’s extended family, passed around and generally treated like dirt. At least until his long, muscled frame and proclivity for violence and other criminal pursuits got him noticed. Men in his own club wanted to fight him just to prove they could, a feat that proved harder as each year passed. When Lance sent him out into underground cage fighting matches to earn the club money, he raked in cash and respect.
Once the lights went out, his ever-expanding skill set became even more coveted. He’d been in the higher ranks of Lance’s MC ever since, although he’d never been fully accepted as part of Lance’s immediate family, never been one of them. To Caspar, that was a good thing.
On the opposite end had once sat Tru, with Silas. They’d been the couple in high school—prince and princess of Defiance when things were still normal. Whether Silas ever knew about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, Caspar didn’t know. And when Tru disappeared without a trace three and a half years earlier, Silas had mourned for six months.
Now the man was bonded to Liv.
The MC had always used the term bonded over marriage, even if club members did end up going the traditional route recognized by state and church. But bonding was a whole different thing now—it was the most serious set of rules the club had, and breaking a bond wasn’t taken lightly. Lance had had the bonding ceremony written into the bylaws.
They all recognized the importance of loyalty in the MC, especially once the compound began to house almost all of the Defiance members and their families instead of just being the MC’s meeting place. Rules and order were necessary—the women chosen to be old ladies needed to be trusted.
The younger generation began referring to it simply as the bond—Caspar’s generation decided to incorporate old ladies getting tattooed to complete the bond, because they liked the idea of that kind of permanence on the woman’s skin. Because the bond was permanent, till death do you part kind of shit.
The bond was the best way for a woman to stay alive in a time where brutal violence by the MC members was the only way to get and keep your place—and gain respect—in the club.
Kids grew up fast in the MC anyway but what occurred two years ago pushed young men to their limits. The Chaos, as it was later named, was a series of environmental destructions triggered when several meteors hit the earth. Two had landed close to active volcanoes and set off a domino effect in the atmosphere as well as volcanic eruptions. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Wild weather, all within a week’s time, all around the earth.
“We were lucky,” scientists said in the reports Defiance heard over ham radio.
Defiance felt lucky, but the younger generation had to step up their game, and fast. At times before the storms hit, they’d made fun of their fathers and their Doomsday preparations. Now, like young men who’d been drafted, they were shell-shocked and cocky.
Time went backward. There was still no communication highway—that infrastructure would take the longest to repair.
There were places that went virtually unscathed and places that experienced total devastation. It was luck of the draw. Lance called it the thinning of the herd. Caspar found that repulsive but couldn’t deny that it was now a world of outlaws and criminals. They were the ones who rebuilt their own societies within the structure of the government’s help.
The United States president—and most other world leaders—had survived. Caspar assumed that most of the governments had access to secured bunkers. Over the radios, he heard reports that the president had declared eminent domain on many areas of the country. The EPA and the government decided what was habitable, repairable and what was not. Port cities and major hubs got repaired first and foremost. Defiance preferred to be left alone.
The MC had put their wiring underground and kept supplies stocked in preparation for something like this. Post-Chaos, they’d grabbed several doctors from the hospitals that no longer functioned and brought them inside the compound. Kept them safe, gave them sterile supplies. And Defiance had the guns to keep intruders out. The water supply was up and running again after six months, but Defiance had ways to filter salt and river water for their own uses in case it was ever necessary again.
The isolation of their compound was both a curse and a blessing. This was the way things would be from now on. Isolation equaled survival. Preparedness equaled survival. Defiance dealt with the outside world when they made their trades, sold their goods.
The transition to the new world order had been easier for the MCs than for most. They were rough, scrappers used to fighting their way through life. They thought nothing of killing their enemies—or their friends—if need be. Bartering with the mafias, taking protection money from the civilians in the surrounding towns. The world moved at a slow grind, but people’s basic needs were always the same: food, drugs, sex. Defiance simply admitted to it long before the chaos. The MC had survived, and survived well these past few years.
Caspar had survived as well, was so close to accomplishing his own private goals. He’d lived through twelve years of goddamned hell to get to this place, and no one was getting in his way. Not even Tru.
* * * * *
Tru knew her father was dead the same way she knew the moon would rise in the night. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t see the moon anymore since the explosions had shattered the normal world and flung it into chaos.
In reality, everything in the world of the MCs was the same, except that her father was dead and she wouldn’t mourn him.
But her father’s death less than a month ago meant it was time for her to return to Defiance, a place she’d once considered home. Not for a service—she’d missed that already. Not to clean out his belongings—likely they’d been parceled out already. No, she’d had to come home after running away over three years ago because it was the only thing that could save her.
She might’ve stayed away forever, continued living in New Jersey along the shore, waitressing at a diner, taking classes, learning how to tattoo from a woman named Louise. But then the Chaos hit and all the lights went out, including the sun.
When the electricity came back on and people began the long process of rebuilding, she’d fought the urge to run back to Defiance. She’d remained on her own for nearly nine months after the storms before relenting and asking Padraic, the head of the Kill Devils MC, for help. That was just over a year ago, and, during that time, her father being alive had been the only thing stopping Padraic from forcing the bond. Now, she was orphaned and unclaimed, which meant Padraic would be able to claim her and she couldn’t—wouldn’t let that happen.
She’d told him so, and that was why she was back to live and die in Defiance. She hadn’t known if she’d be delivered here alive or dead, but here she was.
She opened her eyes now. Stared up at a face that she’d expected to be Silas’s but was distinctly different. The man in front of her had white-blond hair, icy blue eyes. A scar ran from the edge of his lip toward his left eye, bisecting his cheek.
It should’ve made him look ugly. Deformed. It didn’t, although there was something about him that scared the hell out of her.
There always had been, even as she’d been drawn to his violence just the same. “Caspar?”
“Yeah. How’s it goin’, Tru?”
Leave it to him to act as if their last meeting were only days ago. “I’ve been better.”
She could barely move. Padraic had drugged her, trussed up her arms behind her back to keep her securely tied to the bitch bar for most of the trip. She’d been untied and forced to walk the last two miles into Defiance next to the bikes, and then another mile to get to the clubhouse. The walking was part of the new rules when a rogue female was returned to her MC.
At the gates of the Defiance MC, Padraic had kissed her—she remembered that. He’d hit her, too, but she’d grown up with violence and had hit him back. Knocked out teeth. She realized she still held one of them in her fist, and she opened it, let the bloodied thing fall onto the floor as Caspar looked at her with a cross between anger and possibly…amusement?
“Not mine,” she said.
“Figured. I collected you from Paddy.”
Most people called Padraic Paddy, an unassuming name for a man who was anything but.
Did he touch me? she wanted to ask. Her body felt sore and dirty, but she didn’t remember anything after she’d hit Padraic and he’d hit her back, hard enough to knock her out.
If he hadn’t, it would only be out of respect to her father, who the MCs in the area considered one of the greatest Enforcers of any club.
“Doctor’s already been here to check you out—gave you the all clear for now. She’ll be back, though. Said you need rest. Givin’ you fluids to pump the shit Paddy gave you out of your system.” He lit a cigarette and let the smoke drift around him like a halo.
He’d laugh if I told him that.
His knuckles were scarred. He was probably covered with scars by now, and he was surely broader than he’d been. The violence that had always coiled tightly beneath his surface appeared to be unfettered now. No one had to hide what they were anymore, could wear it loud and proud, and Caspar was no exception. His big body, sheathed in black leather and worn denim, took up all the room, all the air. She shivered, an unexpected jolt of pleasure spiraling down through her belly. She wanted him to stay. “Where’s Silas?”
“Not comin’. I’m here till Roan comes.”
“Roan?” she whispered, and Caspar nodded, waited for her to catch the full meaning of what he’d said. Despite the throb on her head, she did so quickly.
“Si’s with Liv now. Almost from the beginning.”
She couldn’t absorb that, was like an old boat with leaks springing up everywhere. But strangely, she wasn’t crying.
She just felt sick at the thought of Roan.
You knew they wouldn’t let you come back here without bonding, princess.And although she had known, she’d hoped against hope that somehow, it would be different.
“You need protection. It’s the only way,” Caspar told her, because he had to know what she was thinking. Always had.
“I won’t do it, Cas.”
“Don’t fuckin’ call me that,” he told her roughly, pinned her wrist to the bed so she couldn’t touch him, all in one smooth, quick burst of movement. “Don’t you fuckin’ call me anything. You only get one free ride from me.”
“Is that what you think?”
“No evidence to the contrary.”
“Wrong or not, you need to shut your mouth. No use you gettin’ in more trouble, hear?”
“I don’t care who hears. And I won’t do it, won’t bond with Roan,” she repeated fiercely, struggled against his grip, no matter how useless it was.
“Not a choice. Week’s time’s all Roan has to make the claim. Lance’ll be around to tell you that too.”
Silas’s father had always been a brute. She shuddered at the memory of his big hamfisted ways. He’d been best friends with her father. “I need more time.”
“You got no power here.”
That wasn’t entirely true—her father had been Lance’s most trusted confidant, his right-hand man. By all accounts, the loyalty to her father’s contributions hadn’t changed while she’d been gone, or in the month since he’d died. She’d be considered part of this clan, semi-royalty, as her father’s reputation was one whispered among the gangs—her father and Lance were more like brothers than friends, and everyone knew that Lance would retaliate if anyone hurt Tru. For Padraic, Tru would’ve been the best prize of all, would’ve risen the Kill Devils up in status since she was a legacy.
Her rejection could mean a war between the MCs, unless Defiance turned her away. “What did Padraic say when he dropped me here?”
“That we had to kill you in front of him,” Caspar said without flinching. She did, even though she knew that death wasn’t all that was supposed to happen with a dishonoring like hers. Padraic would call for that to happen from ten members of her own MC while the rest watched. She’d seen it happen once, at Padraic’s. The girl had stopped screaming after the third man took her.
“Do you really think me bonding to Roan’s going to fix things?”
“Never said that, but it’s not up to me.”
“Still playing the bastard victim?”
“Still chasing Silas?” he asked in the same bored tone he always used. “Lookin’ to be king and queen of this prom? Go fight Liv and kill her for the honor. Just do it before we all get dragged into your shit again.”
She wanted to tell him she’d never dragged him into anything, but she’d be lying. Needed to ask him about that night she’d left Defiance, but she didn’t know who else was listening.
But Cas knew. He always knew.
“I didn’t tell Silas.” Caspar’s voice was low and rough, a satin drag across her skin. “Never will.”
Never will. “What if I wanted you to?”
His jaw tightened. “You went to Paddy, instead of coming to me. Doesn’t fuckin’ matter anymore, Tru.”
She stared at his neck, at the tattoo of the gang’s symbol rising up toward one of his earlobes, an intricate and surprisingly delicate pattern, considering the raw violence the gang always embraced.
Then again, the woman behind Lance had been the one to design it, and had always been the real ruler of this gang. Now, Trixie would be the one to enforce the bond code more stringently than anyone. The MC lived and died by their inner order. To the outside world, it might seem like all violence and anarchy, but they were all leashed and released only at the command of the charter president…and the woman behind him.
Trixie had power and she’d never let it be taken from her the way Tru had seen happen with other MC women—both before and after the lights went out. Tru would have to follow her lead. “Who did you bond with, Caspar?”
His jaw clenched and she knew the answer was no one.
He stood, kicking the chair to the wall, and told her, “I won’t be your goddamned sloppy seconds, Tru,” before he slammed the door between them.
“You never were,” she whispered at the closed door.
* * * * *
Tru couldn’t see much through the darkness. Wherever they’d put her, it was far enough from the main part of the compound that she couldn’t hear anything but the low rumble of motorcycles coming and going.
“You really brought us a load of shit by coming back here.” Trixie’s voice rumbled through the darkness. A second later, a light clicked on, precious light being wasted on her.
The room Tru’d been put in had a female’s touch—there were fresh flowers in the corner of the room, the sheets were starched and clean, the comforter was a pale blue trimmed with lace. Oddly old-fashioned and so incongruous in this otherwise rough and tumble place.
Trixie looked the same—tall and broad for a woman, but pretty, with long dark hair curling along her shoulders and tattoos up and down her arms. Badges of honor.
“Shower’s ready—got some hot water for you.”
She knew why Trix was treating her with kid gloves, even though, in the eyes of the club, Tru had committed one of the worst offenses by leaving her legacy behind. If she’d been a guy, she would’ve been killed on sight.
It had always been like that here. You had to fight for what you wanted—claw for it.
In the privacy of the bathroom, she stripped and stared in the mirror with the aid of candlelight at the light bruises on her arm from where she’d fallen. That’s what the single women had started doing to help raise money—they made and sold candles to the locals, big fat ones that looked ugly but burned for days on end. There was nothing romantic about them anymore. Darkness had once been a wonderful cover for everything, especially feelings.
But the doctor had checked her out, had no doubt been filled in on Tru’s medical history by Trixie. Padraic hadn’t done any harm to her—not physically. He was going to let someone else do the dirty work.
As she soaped up, washed her hair, she wondered if that might’ve been better. By the time she finished, she felt nearly human again, and the steel was back in her spine. She’d survived, and she’d continue to do so.
“You used all the damned hot water,” Trix grumbled.
“I’ll take my next one cold.”
“Course you will. Not a spa I’m running here.”
“Who survived?” she asked.
“Most of the families you knew are fine. Ten of the men were on a run down to Long Valley. We never heard from them again. Half sat at the table.”
Thirteen men had voting privileges and sat in at the weekly meetings they called church. Trixie told her the names of those from the table who were gone and Tru could easily picture the men, many of whom had hung out with her father, backed him when he’d needed it. “Did their families stay?”
“Some of the women took the opportunity to get out. Lots of others came here for protection.”
“How many members are we up to?”
Trix shot her a side look at the word we and snorted. “Close to forty here, plus their families. Four satellite clubs in four states, so all together, close to five hundred strong.”
Enough to defend themselves, but each charter was small enough to be self-sufficient.
Defiance had been a haven for doomsday preppers long before reality TV became obsessed with the concept. From the time she was little, the club always had two faces—the above-ground compound the public saw and the underground city the MC had been building since the inception of the club. The underground housing consisted of a series of interconnected tunnels and tubes, some buried directly below the main houses and others with more hidden entrances and exits. It was a complicated, sprawling system that belied how awesome it really was.
If you could handle being underground.
The original MC leaders had spent years perfecting the patents for the tubes and Lance Jr. and Abel Jr. put their plans into motion.
Lance’s and Abel’s fathers had been submariners and UTD—precursors to the SEALs—so they were used to being locked away in tubes for long periods of time. It’s what gave the men the idea in the first place. There were pictures all over the clubhouse walls of the drills they’d done—photos of tubes, buried in the sand with the tide rushing over them. At first, they did it with empty structures and later, with volunteers who stayed buried until high tide ceased.
They bought up acres of land that no one wanted, dug and buried the tubes and tested them for durability in all kinds of weather and other conditions. They became safe houses, prisons, places to go and screw around in private.
But mostly, they were insurance for the MC members that their families were as safe as they could be, and the first rule of Defiance’s doomsday prepping was that you didn’t talk about doomsday prepping. So she hadn’t. And when what seemed like the end of the world had come, Defiance, and by extension other MCs they were friendly with, were ready.
She remembered the big cranes, the diggers, the giant corrugated steel tubes being lowered into the holes and reburied. They were touted as survival shelters but they were more extensive than that. They were meant to be lived in long term, if necessary. Inside each family tube was a fully furnished apartment. The main clubhouse was also recreated underground, complete with a meeting room. There were also tubes designated simply for storage, for growing fruits and vegetables, for water wells, and for various other survival purposes. Everything was climate controlled, thanks to the generators that ran off natural gas, gasoline or propane, depending on availability.
Inside these tubes, they could survive weather disasters, nuclear attacks, bombings and any other disasters the world might throw at them. And it appeared as though the Chaos would continue to bring severe and unexpected storms and other weather-related events for years to come.
When the Chaos hit, she’d known Defiance would survive. Padraic’s MC had bought and installed the tube system on a much smaller scale in exchange for medical goods and pharmameds years before the Chaos. While she’d been with the Kill Devils, they’d been making their underground city more extensive, in preparation for more environmental disasters.
Somehow, everything had changed and still managed to remain exactly the same. The harder she’d tried to escape, the more she ended up in the same place. If Defiance was her destiny, then she’d have to give in to it full force.
“Lance wants you with Roan,” Trix told her, brushing out Tru’s hair as she sat with the towel wrapped around her, after she’d worked the salve into the worst of the contusions and cuts. “Did Padraic touch you?”
“No.” She was sure now that she’d showered. There was no soreness, not like there’d been that first time she’d had sex.
“Why? You convince him you were a virgin?” Trixie snorted like it was a dirty word. Especially post-Chaos, that wouldn’t make Tru special—sex was regularly traded for power and was also enjoyed by both sexes—there was no shame in any of it, which was a liberation from the old ways.
For Tru, that liberation was a start. “How’s Liv?”
“Honey, you’re treading thin ice.” Then her voice softened. “Your father asked for you until the day he died.”
“Then maybe he shouldn’t’ve hit me.” She wanted to add more, but didn’t.
“They all do it when they can get away with it.”
“And we’re supposed to take it?”
“We’re supposed to make sure they can’t get away with it. Honey, you always knew there was an order, a way women have to do things. You think anything’s changed since the lights went out? We just have to be smarter, that’s all.”
“There are men who don’t hit women,” Tru challenged.
“Then you go find one.”
“I don’t want Roan, Trix. I can’t…”
“You can’t have Si back.”
“I know.” She didn’t tell Trix she didn’t want her sons at all, because Trix was more than capable of violence herself, especially when it came down to her biological family.
“You’ve got to go for exactly what you want in this world. You pick one of them, you bond with him, and you stand behind him until no one else is left standing.” She paused and finished the long braid of Tru’s hair before she said, “Think about who you want to be standing next to if the rest of the world went to hell, and you’ve got your man.”
Trix put the brush on the table, pointed to the food she’d brought in. “Eat, get some sleep. Let those bruises heal and let everyone get used to knowing you’re around before you show your face.”
“Okay.” She waited until Trix was almost out of the room before she asked, “Did you pick right?”