Pre-Chaos world—seven years earlier
He wasn’t prepared to die. He’d told himself he was, tried to prepare for it, because he was nothing if not practical. His lifestyle demanded it. His family necessitated it further.
But what a fuckin’ way to go, buried in a goddamned pine box in a pauper’s grave. He had a flashlight and a couple of air holes punched into the sides, but that only added to the torture. So he’d be able to breathe as he slowly died from dehydration. And probably panic, once the drugs wore off.
He’d tried to open the box, but the men who’d taken him had been kind enough to show him how far down he was going, the full six feet under. Even if he did escape the box, the dirt would suffocate him, maybe even before it crushed him.
The pouring rain didn’t help.
He shut the flashlight off and heard the absolute stillness around him. It was like wearing noise-canceling headphones that didn’t quite work all the way. Which meant he could hear, say, the siren of an ambulance in the distance, but his voice would give way if he tried to yell loud enough to be heard.
After all he’d been through over the past couple of weeks, this was by far the worst. He closed his eyes against the darkness, prepared to rail against it. His left palm itched relentlessly. It’d started before they’d grabbed him, and it might’ve been itching the entire time, but the pain he’d been enduring had pushed it to the back burner.
He blinked into the darkness when he swore he saw a white light. His flashlight was off—he even turned it on again and saw the light from it next to the other white light.
You’re hallucinating. You’re fucking dying.
He didn’t remember much after that. They’d later tell him that his hands were wrapped because he’d torn off his nails and infected the shit out of his fingers. “Because you never stopped trying to survive,” his father explained. The pain of his injuries, and the scars that remained when things healed, would be there forever.
Declan had been underground for just under twenty-four hours. It’d seemed like goddamned forever. He’d screamed and sobbed and prayed and that all blended.
He’d woken up for months afterward clawing at an invisible wooden ceiling inches from his face.
He didn’t remember much…but what he did was enough to create the biggest scar inside him, one he’d never told anyone about.
When he’d been underground, he’d heard a voice that was different from the men who’d taken him, a voice he’d recognized immediately…and one he never mentioned to anyone after his rescue.
It was at that moment that Declan’s circle of trust narrowed to a fine point that included only himself and his father.
Anyone else? Completely fucking disposable. And he’d promised himself he’d never forget it.
* * * * *
Six months later
Rebel was seventeen and living on the compound of the Defiance Motorcycle Club as a probie member when the sky opened up and rained motherfucking fire on his world. The water poured down in torrents and he was convinced the ground would soak so badly that the tubes would just dislodge from their underground moorings and float away, untethered, leaving him and Luna trapped.
She was his best friend, and he’d been preparing to go to her house when the storms hit initially, because she’d gotten into a huge fight with her parents. Because her father had threatened to hurt her…and the storms that would later be forever known as the Chaos had saved her life by collapsing the house.
She’d been on the first floor, backpack in hand, preparing to run. And when Rebel got to her, she was shaken but unhurt. He’d pulled her to safety and they’d made it into his tube where the realization began to sink in that the two of them, like so many others, had been made sudden orphans by the catastrophic events that hit the entire world beginning on that day.
He didn’t find out about his dad’s death until the storms cleared—not officially, but of course, he knew. His dad hadn’t made it down to the tubes, and the chances of him surviving aboveground for weeks were slim to none.
Rebel’s dad had been a senior member of the MC, had sat at the table with the president and other important members. That made Rebel a legacy, but making the jump to being a full-fledged member wouldn’t be an easy job. At least it wouldn’t have been if the Chaos storms hadn’t happened.
Once they did, Rebel and several other legacy guys his age were immediately patched in. But as he sat in the tube with Luna, he didn’t know that. He didn’t even know if there would be a Defiance MC after all of this.
“Nothing’s ever going to be the same, Reb,” Luna whispered next to him on the bed, where they’d remained huddled.
Even though their MC had been prepping for doomsday disasters for years, to have it actually happen was unbelievable. Terrifying. All the death that occurred because people couldn’t get to the tubes…
“Reb, you saved me,” Luna reminded him again, when she saw he was brooding again.
“You’re right. And you owe me, so pay up,” he managed, and she looked shocked for a second, and then laughed. Because he was smiling.
It was the first time either of them had laughed in a week’s time—a seven-day stretch that had simultaneously flown by and dragged like molasses. When a knock at the door of his tube came, he found Lance on the other side of it. Their then-leader had explained that they were to stay underground for several more weeks, at which time the men would assess the damage.
“Plenty of food. Tubes are solid. Generators too. We’re all going to be fine.” Lance must’ve repeated those lines a thousand times that day.
Lance was correct about all of it. Many had survived. They were okay, thanks to all the prep. But the world? That would never be the same. The sun was gone, only coming out every two weeks, thanks to some kind of secret government laser to cut through the volcanic ash and debris that covered the atmosphere. It took power, money, influence and cunning to stay alive, to get food and other necessities. It took balls to even drive half a mile down the now-pitted roadways. The government was in hiding. TV and internet and phone lines were gone, as was most natural gas and water production. It was literally every man for himself.
Add to that, the severe storms continued to come up at a moment’s notice. Literally, overnight, the world became the most dangerous, predatory place there was…and the Defiance MC was ready for all the violence and treachery. Rebel had grown up in its bosom, imbibed those qualities as he’d prepped to become a full member…but hell, he’d grown up fast that day.
There was no escaping now. Even though he’d thought about it sporadically, knowing he’d have to hide the fact that he liked to fuck boys instead of girls. For the rest of his time with the MC, he was now locked in.
He’d survived… and he’d continue to survive, no matter the cost to himself.
Seven years later
“Yeah, Reb…don’t stop. Fuck, please don’t.” Declan’s words were a growl, a beg, a plea that made Rebel’s eyes light up, even as he teased Declan’s sweat-slicked body with his mouth, biting a path from pec to thigh, causing Declan to shudder each time Rebel sucked his skin into a raised red mark that blossomed like the beautiful pain it was.
A month of this, and Declan knew he’d never get enough. They’d started out thinking they were using each other.
They’d both been so goddamned wrong.
“Fuck!” he cried out as Rebel twisted his nipples hard.
“Focus on me,” Rebel said sternly, and Declan nodded, kept his eyes locked on Rebel’s as Rebel climbed onto him, spreading his legs.
This was the only place Declan was submissive—because in real life, Declan was one of Keller’s men. A hitman. A certifiably dangerous twenty-one-year-old man who’d been fucking Rebel on a regular basis for the past year. Then again, Rebel was pretty damned dangerous himself. There were multiple warrants out for his arrest, mainly for stealing cars pre-Chaos. He’d also been a rogue member of Defiance from the age of sixteen, because of his father, a much loved and longtime member who’d died during the Chaos.
Even though they’d only officially met a month earlier, they’d been circling each other for far longer at the underground gay clubs that had popped up since the Chaos. And now, Declan’s wrists were willingly—gladly—handcuffed to his bed as Rebel fucked him into the mattress. This was where—and how—they’d first connected, and it still worked best for them. Declan didn’t mind that. Rebel let his guard down in bed. Everything was possible when Rebel was inside him.
When they were done fucking…well, that’s when things got tricky. Because Declan began to think too much. Rebel too, until they got all twisted up in mafia/club shit. Because their extended families were enemies…maybe not of the Montague/Capulet extreme but Keller’s mafia and Defiance had been grudgingly trading goods for years, all while trying to undermine the other. The fact that Declan, a Keller assassin, and Rebel, a high-ranking MC member, were sleeping together could get both of them in deep shit, but for Rebel, it would also expose a lifelong secret. Because no one in his MC suspected he was gay, save for Luna and those who saw him in the clubs. Those were don’t ask, don’t tell, and that code was never broken.
Rebel was only here to make sure Luna was safe—she’d snuck into the Keller compound to follow the man she loved, sacrificing her safety purely for Bishop. Rebel would choose protecting himself—and Luna—over Declan. Declan would have to force himself to do the same.
Because no matter how comfortable Rebel was with Declan, and dammit, he was, it couldn’t stay secret. Shouldn’t.
Declan couldn’t imagine a lifetime of secrets. He had plenty of his own, but that wasn’t one of them. He didn’t advertise, but neither did he shy away. Simply put, his personal life was his, but many of Keller’s other assassins knew Declan was gay, and they didn’t give a shit.
But bikers? Whole different animal. And even though Keller wanted Rebel to stay on the compound and work for him—even though that’s what Declan wanted as well—Rebel would never agree to it. He was loyal to his MC, and Declan could never fault him for that. No, he admired the fact that Rebel was a legacy. He understood it.
It wouldn’t make things any easier though.
* * * * *
The fight started out of nowhere. That’s what Rebel wanted to believe, anyway. Had shoved down the anxiety that’d been brewing, almost from the start of their relationship.
When Rebel first picked Declan up in the private, underground bar, he’d never thought it would become more than a simple trade: information for sex. A dance as old as time. And, in today’s post-Chaos world, the barter system was what they resorted to…sometimes it was the only thing they could use.
He’d done it for Luna, who’d made a giant sacrifice. Rebel had followed suit, but not for Declan. No matter how badly he wanted to—and Rebel did want to—being gay or bi in the MC world wasn’t talked about…or accepted, if the code of silence in those underground bars was to be understood. Even so, going there wasn’t without its dangers—there’d been several bombings inside those clubs over the past year, letting the men (and women) who frequented them know that their kind wasn’t appreciated.
Since the storms destroyed half the damned world and took away the sun, it was a fight for survival every minute of every single day. Anything that could be perceived as weakness had to go.
Love, Rebel knew, could make you weak. Coming out would put a target on his back, and he told Declan so.
Declan responded with, “Then stay here.”
“You make it sound so easy, Dec. It’s not.”
Declan shook his head as he dressed, putting on his usual outfit of black jeans and a fine, black cashmere sweater. If he pushed the sleeves up enough, Rebel could just barely catch a glimpse of the tattoos that covered him. There were none above his collar, on his hands or feet, but everywhere his clothing covered him? Yes, he was covered in bold patterns of ink, which was incongruous to his blond-haired, blue-eyed, almost patrician handsomeness.
“Reb, you’ve got to stop hiding. And I’m not saying this because I don’t want to hide with you.”
“You don’t want to hide because you never had to,” Rebel said. Declan could only shrug at the truth of that, because Keller’s compound was a den of inequity—nothing was off limits and more than that, nothing was looked down upon. Being gay wasn’t even considered subversive or odd—it wasn’t blinked at.
Rebel would never had considered coming out when Lance was alive, but he’d hidden for so long, exposing himself was terrifying, and considering he survived the Chaos, that was saying something.
It was also ridiculous.
He’d hoped Declan would cut him a break. But the fucker refused. Kept pushing. “I don’t get it. Bishop doesn’t care—”
“Bishop’s not Defiance.” When Rebel said that, Declan’s brows raised. “I don’t fucking mean it like that. Of course he’s Defiance, but he didn’t grow up in an MC. Neither did you. How many gay MC guys do you know?”
Declan thought about that, then began checking them off on his fingers.
Rebel held up a hand. “Stop. Don’t want to know.”
“No one since we started.”
Rebel’s stomach tightened. “What do you want from me?”
“I think the bigger question’s actually what do you want from me?”
“Dude, is that a trick question?”
Declan narrowed his eyes.
“Go public with me,” Declan challenged.
Declan shook his head slowly, but he didn’t look surprised. “I know secrets, Rebel. Live them. They save my goddamned life. But yours isn’t…it’s destroying you, slowly. Forcing you to live a lie is one thing the MC’s doing, or you’re doing it to yourself. But not dealing with your past? Fuck, I want to touch you, and not just physically. I want more, Reb. I fucking deserve it. We both do. Go get your shit together. Get in touch with me when you do. Maybe I’ll still be here. Maybe I won’t, but I realize it’s a risk we both have to take.”
Rebel didn’t say anything except, “Nothing’s going to change. It can’t.”
He didn’t turn around as he walked out the door, mainly because he didn’t want to see the pain—or worse, the indifference—that could possibly be etched in Declan’s expression.
Only when Rebel had driven a couple of miles away from Keller’s did he realize how perfectly Declan had played that. Forced his hand, because he’d know Rebel would never be able to go public.
“He was protecting himself,” Rebel muttered. And breaking me in the process.
He’d been so deep in thought, he hadn’t noticed several members of the Lords of Vengeance MC lying in wait ahead. Several more LoVs drove up behind him, circling his truck.
He knew that at best they’d just kill him on the spot. Hell, he considered doing the job himself for a brief second, because the other, more probable path the LoV would take with him would be torture.
He’d seen evidence of that firsthand.
For several tense moments, he remained safely inside his truck—they shot the tires out first thing.
He struggled on the slick roads, but between the large hail, the ice, he was skidding toward the bank of thick trees on the right…and at a damned high rate of speed.
He passed out on impact, mercifully so, as the LoV shot him at some point while he was unconscious. He was vaguely aware of Bishop hovering over him, and he wanted to warn Bishop that the LoV were around…hiding. But he couldn’t get the words out.
Everything was blurred from that point on. He only vaguely recalled being dragged roughly from his truck, but that was a small consolation when he did wake up in screaming pain in the trunk of an LoV car.
Although he refused to scream. Wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Hell, the only reason he’d come to was because they’d thrown Bishop in there, half on top of him, before they closed the trunk, covering them in total darkness.
Rebel was all too willing to let it wash over him once again.
* * * * *
Declan escaped the main area of Keller’s office, leaving Luna, Kammy and Zara behind so he could think for a fucking few uninterrupted seconds. He paced silently in the chamber where he knew Keller often did the same, worried about everything under the sun (when there was sun)…and now, Declan was facing the possibility that in a single evening, the three men he counted on the most were gone.
Could they all be wiped out? Could the powers that be actually be that fucking sadistic?
All he had to do was look around at the near-constant night sky to get his answer.
The storm started up in earnest about half an hour after Declan fought with Rebel. Bishop had gone into the blinding rain and wind in order to look for Rebel, and Declan stayed behind with Luna. Because Declan had responsibilities to Keller and to the compound that was his home. But the worse the storm got, the more the tube felt like that goddamned coffin, and Declan spent most of the storm trying to evade a goddamned panic attack.
When the storm had finally ended several hours before, he and Luna had walked from his tube to Keller’s offices…discovering the horror of the mass destruction all around them. It was more from the LoV’s massacre of innocent people who lived on the compound, rather than Mother Nature’s fury, and there were bodies strewn all over the compound under the blazing sun.
Of all the times for the sun to come out on its own, with no help from the government satellite…the images of the bodies tossed around like rag dolls was burned on his brain.
And he knew then that there was no way the LoV—even coupled with Fletcher’s mafia—was in on this alone.
Luna had, of course, asked, “Declan, who did this?”
Even before he’d get confirmation—and Declan knew that at some point he would—he had no doubt who’d masterminded this massacre.
And they’d been here, on Keller property. Close enough to reach out and touch Declan…again.
He’d rubbed the scar on his hip through his jeans as it started to tingle. The N cut into his skin was tattooed over, but it stung worse than the others. Especially at times like this—it was as if that was a direct connection to the men who’d carved it into his skin…the men who’d murdered Keller’s people.
Now, he looked into Luna’s eyes, and he lied. “It was the LoV and Fletcher.”
“I didn’t know they were capable of that,” she said softly. “I thought nothing could surprise me anymore.”
He’d sent Keller’s guards out to assess those who made it down to the tubes in time, checking for anyone who might’ve lived through the massacre…and disposing of the bodies before disease spread. Irony of ironies that the sun not only exposed the massacre, but made it necessary to bury—and possibly burn—the bodies quickly.
“Declan, Siobhan is here,” Kammy called through the door. She never barged in on Keller, and she offered Declan the same respect.
He strode over, opening the heavy door and ushering Siobhan in. “I won’t be long,” he promised Kammy, whose pretty face was drawn with worry over Keller.
When he shut the door, he was almost afraid to turn and look at Siobhan—he’d avoided meeting her eyes when she came in but now it would be inevitable.
Finally, he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his black jeans and faced her.
When she’d first come to live on the compound, she’d been a mere teenager—all of thirteen. Now, she was twenty, all grown up, with auburn hair and dark eyes that bore into his.
“He’s alive,” she told him immediately. “All three are.”
“You’re sure?” Declan asked, not wanting to say any of the names of the men he worried about, not Rebel or Bishop or Keller. But Siobhan would know. And the knowing had to be a burden, but right now he was too damned grateful to dwell on her pain.
“He’d come back here immediately.” She lowered her voice as she spoke of Keller, adding, “He built this,” for emphasis. “There are a lot of dead here, but he’s not one of them. Neither are the others you’re worried about. Especially the one you—” She stopped then, like she realized she was getting too intimate, too involved.
Hell, how much more involved could she be?
And Declan believed her, as he always did.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door, Kammy calling through the closed door that a ransom demand had just come in via SAT phone.
Less than twenty-four hours later, Rebel, Bishop and Keller were riding in his truck on the way back from the LoV’s compound. All three were hurt, although Keller far less than the other two. Rebel and Bishop bore the brunt of it—Bishop, forced to box his way through the LoVs three at a time, and Rebel, with his injuries from the car crash, plus a bullet wound and contusions from being beaten and dragged.
Declan’s heart had nearly seized at seeing Rebel like that. It took everything he had not to go to him immediately, to help him.
But Mathias and Luna were there. Instead, Declan helped Keller, who clapped a hand on his shoulder, and grabbed for him with the other, like he was about to fall and needed bracing…and at that point, he slid a folded square of paper into Declan’s hand that Declan would later open, then burn, watching the letter N slowly crumple in the fire.
* * * * *
Once they were all settled back in Keller’s office, assessing the damage, dealing with Defiance and their anger, Declan found himself agreeing to live at what was to be the new Defiance compound. Caspar promised the MC would speed up the move, bringing the time down to approximately three months as opposed to the originally proposed six.
He’d thought Rebel had been passed out when Declan was being discussed like a commodity to be traded from compound to compound, a bargaining chip so neither side could hurt the other without the threat of their own being harmed.
He’d been wrong, because later, after he helped Luna get both Bishop and Rebel over to their tube, he settled Rebel in—Keller had a bed moved into the living area for Rebel. Luna shut the door to the bedroom after a long glance at Declan, knowing he and Rebel had things to discuss.
He wasn’t sure if he was grateful or pissed at that. But now definitely wasn’t the time—not after they’d be forced together soon enough.
Beyond that, nothing had changed. Nothing—and everything. Declan knew Rebel wasn’t ready to deal with any of it—he hated it, even as he accepted it time after time. Because there wasn’t anything he could do to change it.
Until he’d forced Rebel to make his decision and leave.
“I want more, Reb. I fucking deserve it. We both do. Go get your shit together. Get in touch with me when you do. Maybe I’ll still be here. Maybe I won’t, but I realize it’s a risk we both have to take.”
Now, the consequence of Declan’s actions was right in front of him, bloodied and bruised, and he’d carry this guilt for a hell of a long time.
As he went to remove Rebel’s heavy boots, easing them off carefully, Rebel glanced at him. “This can’t work.”
He wasn’t talking about boots—that much, Declan knew. But he had no idea if Rebel meant the truce between Defiance and Keller’s. Wanted to think he did, but fuck, he was still so raw from the fight…the break-up.
From falling the fuck in love.
“Not gonna work,” Rebel repeated, his tone stubborn.
“You staying here tonight?” Declan asked innocently.
“You. Me. Defiance.”
When Declan had agreed earlier to go to Defiance, Rebel had been there, albeit in a narcotic haze. Obviously, not enough of one. “It’s done.”
“Shouldn’t be. We don’t mix.”
“We could, Reb.”
“You pushed me away,” Rebel pointed out.
“Just shut up and heal, okay? Christ—you don’t have the goddamned sense to pull over in a storm?”
Rebel gazed at him. “The LoV ran me off the road, fucker.” He didn’t add, “After you pushed me away,” but they were both thinking it.
“We broke up,” Declan told him irritably.
“You said we were never really together.”
Declan didn’t remind him that he’d added that they weren’t really together if Rebel hadn’t been able to acknowledge it to himself. “You need more pain meds?”
“Fuck no.” Rebel tried to sit up and pain tore visibly through his body.
“Dammit, Reb. Don’t always have to be strong,” Declan admonished.
“Right. I’ll try to remember that.”
“Asshole,” Declan muttered, pressing the pain pills into Rebel’s mouth, forcing him to drink some water to chase them down.
“Same to you,” Rebel shot back after he’d swallowed. “Fucking horse pills—disorient the fuck out of me. Didn’t want them.”
“But you needed them—that’s more important than what you want.”
Rebel gazed up at him, silent acknowledgement that they weren’t really talking about the pills. They continued the silent staring contest, Declan’s hands fisted at his side…until the narcotics finally did their job, leaving Rebel sleeping—if not exactly peacefully, at least his face wasn’t drawn tight from pain.
Hesitantly, Declan reached out, his first touch a light, tentative one to brush along Rebel’s cheek. When Rebel didn’t move, or flinch or grasp Declan’s wrist, he got bolder, the way he’d never been able to. Not for longer than a few seconds before Rebel was holding him down.
As much as Declan liked—loved—that, he wanted the intimacy of touching Rebel whenever he felt like it.
And you had to wait till he’s passed out in pain to do it, he chided himself as he stroked a hand along Rebel’s thick, dark hair, traced a strong shoulder, the rose tattoo…then moved back up to run his knuckles lightly over the bruises, evidence of the beating he’d taken, the accident. The things Declan could’ve prevented, at least this time, if he hadn’t forced Rebel to do the inevitable.
Any guilt about touching Rebel when he was passed out was quickly usurped by the guilt of that. And so he continued to stroke Rebel, because fuck it, he’d take it any way he could get it.