Skulls Creek, Book 1
The Vipers Motorcycle Club has strict rules for their brotherhood and the women who enter it. Now one Viper is about to find out how much trouble one woman can be…
Former Army Ranger Christian Cage Owens joined the Vipers Motorcycle Club for its sense of brotherhood. In return, he pledged to live outside the law, protecting club members and their families, as well as keeping other MCs out of Skulls Creek. But when Cage discovers that a rival MC—one Cage has an all too familiar past with—plans to push meth into his town, he calls an old Army buddy turned private investigator who’s helped the Vipers in the past. By doing so, Cage endangers both his friend and Calla, a woman who works in the PI’s office. Now he’s made it his mission to track Calla down and do whatever it takes to protect her.
Thanks to a phone call with Cage, Calla knows she’s formed a deep connection to a dangerous man. She quickly discovers that although he may live by a different set of rules, Cage is an honorable man who wants to be more than her protector—if only she can accept his dangerous lifestyle. But Calla comes to Skulls Creek with her own set of secrets…secrets that threaten to tear her and Cage—and the Vipers MC—apart. As they put their newfound love to the ultimate test, Cage will risk everything he cares about to save her…
Read an Excerpt
One year earlier
Luna knew it was time to leave Defiance when she saw Tru being marched up to the front gates of the motorcycle club.
She didn’t know for sure at that moment if Tru was coming back into the MC she’d grown up in against her will or not, but being half dragged through the gates by the leader of a rival MC didn’t bode well, for any of them.
That feeling of being trapped, of needing to escape had been brewing inside Luna for months, years, but she’d managed to tamp it down, mainly out of fear. The post-Chaos world wasn’t the place for a woman alone. The pre-Chaos world hadn’t been either, though, and seeing the woman who’d been one of her best friends being forced back inside made the dread grow in her belly.
What if there’s really no escape?
For the week prior, she’d had the feeling of some kind of impending crisis, had spent most of the time assuming it was another big storm coming down the pike and trying not to panic too badly. But the feeling of doom intensified and even now, looking at Tru’s march back through the Defiance gates, Luna wasn’t sure if this was the event that had been weighing on her so heavily.
She’d had this foreboding feeling before, many times in her life…most importantly, right before the Chaos hit, and that series of storms had changed the world as she’d known it. It was an intense event that took her parents, the sunlight, many forms of communication. It changed her entire way of life and left her in the cradle of the Defiance Motorcycle Club, a place where she’d grown up, one she’d been forced to depend on for her complete survival.
Defiance MC was in a chaos of its own with Tru’s return. The one-time princess of the MC was causing a ton of trouble with other MCs, with Caspar, with the leaders of Defiance. Although the MC had thrived during the three years following the Chaos, thanks to their doomsday prepping club founders and their system of underground tubes, there were still an awful lot of challenges that came with daily living.
Luna spent a lot of her time during the next evenings after Tru’s arrival in one of the smaller garages, working on her truck. She’d been rebuilding it, nearly from scratch after it had been caught under the partial collapse of her childhood house. She’d smoothed out the dents on the bumpers and the hood, but didn’t bother with new paint and the like, because she didn’t want it to stand out on the roads.
A tremor went through her—she looked up at the sky as if an impending storm was on the way but it was dark and clear. Goose bumps rose on her arms but she didn’t pull her shirt on over the tank top she wore. Her hair was half wrapped in a bandana, a braid over her shoulder, grease on her arms. She drew in a couple of deep breaths and mentally cursed that her truck wouldn’t be ready to leave that night—the timing would’ve been perfect. But she couldn’t risk getting stuck on the road.
In reality, she couldn’t risk leaving at all, but she would. She had to, or she’d shrivel up and die here.
“God, maybe you could be more dramatic,” she muttered, went back into the garage and continued to work on the engine until her eyes blurred. And then the feeling covered her again, like some kind of blanket. Her skin tingled as if electricity burned through her.
When she looked up, he framed the doorway, filling it. There was light shining in from behind him, which she didn’t understand since there was no light out, and she drew in a sharp breath.
It was, she imagined, a lot like being struck by lightning. Painful but somehow thrilling at the same time.
Honestly, for about two seconds, she thought he was an illusion, an angel, with the song “Patience” blasting in behind him that she’d later learn was coming from his van.
Rebel had left her some pot earlier, and she’d smoked while she worked. It might’ve been particularly strong or maybe it was just the night’s magic—or the man it ushered in—but she was higher than she’d ever been in her life.
The pull toward him was indescribable. The fire burned in the corner stove, the music pounded and she’d dropped the wrench and walked toward him.
He’d moved toward her as well. When they were close enough, she noted that he looked haunted, as haunted as she felt. She went up on her tiptoes, threaded her hand through the back of his hair and pulled his head down. She pressed her open mouth to his and kissed him with abandon.
He tightened an arm around her waist—not enough to frighten her, but rather, to add to her excitement. Somehow, his arrival was what she’d been waiting for, what she’d needed. And as she moaned against his mouth, they swayed together.
This had to be a dream. A slow-dancing, sinking-to-the-ground dream, where they lay together, fully clothed looking up at the fluorescent paint Rebel had put on the ceiling. Axl Rose’s rough voice and promises soothed her almost as much as this man’s arms. And that’s all it was—kissing and lying in the tall, tattooed man’s arms but it felt far more profound, like they’d connected on a level she’d never connected with anyone before.
If she’d woken in the morning and found it had been a dream, she wouldn’t have been surprised.
She spent a lot of time staring at the phoenix tattoo on the inside of his forearm. She swore she saw the wings move.
Was he who she prayed for?
“I wanted someone to come rescue me,” she murmured.
He looked concerned. “Are they hurting you here?”
Yes, they were, but not in any way she could encapsulate at the moment, not enough to make him understand. She should’ve given him more credit, because somehow he knew. He was like her in more ways than she’d understood at that moment—the connection was immediate, impossible to ignore and it was forever.
“Not really,” she lied.
“Well, I’m here, babe. And fuck, you’re beautiful,” he murmured, brushing her cheek with his knuckles as they lay on the blanket in the middle of the garage.
She smiled. And then she fell asleep.
The next morning, she woke, blinking, confused and thinking it all must’ve been a dream. Until she saw the man with the phoenix tattoo at the diner with another new guy. He glanced over at her, his eyes full of the same intensity they’d born toward her last night and her heart squeezed tight.
She didn’t even know his name.
* * * * *
The next night, he’d broken into her place, climbed right through her window.
It had been the middle of the night and she’d been reading by candlelight. She hadn’t had time to react before his entire body was halfway inside and then she’d been too stunned to say anything right away.
When she finally found her voice, she managed, “Most people knock.”
“I’m not most people. Besides, do you kiss everyone the way you kissed me last night?” There was no teasing in his tone, no censure—he was completely serious, like he knew her answer would be no. Like he was telling her that this was the way it was going to be.
He scared the shit out of her for that. Her cheeks burned. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“I’m Bishop. You’re Luna.”
“I’m with Rebel,” she blurted out.
“What are you even doing in here?” she demanded
“Talking to you,” he said reasonably.
“That’s not…you can’t just do that.”
“Really? But I’m here.”
“If you don’t leave…”
“What? You’ll call your boyfriend?”
The way he said the word, she knew he wasn’t buying that anything was happening between her and Rebel. But she said “Yes” anyway.
“But you don’t love him. Not like that. Although you pretend really well. Why do you want people to think you’re in love with him?” he asked, tilting his head.
“It’s complicated,” she muttered, keenly aware of how little clothing she wore. Rebel rigged the heat in the house to blast most nights, since she refused to come down to the tubes unless there was a storm. So she wore a sleeveless tank and her underwear…Bishop was in jeans and a black leather jacket, a navy blue bandana wound around his head that made his blue eyes stand out even more.
His hands…they were so big. Everything about him was big—she knew when he was pressed against her last night.
Now, he sat on the edge of her bed and then laid back and stared up at the ceiling. “You don’t like it underground?”
“I don’t either.”
“You can’t stay here.”
“Rebel said I could.”
“He did not,” she said, but knowing Rebel…”Dammit.”
He laughed then. “Luna, you made this whole goddamned thing worth it.”
From that night, he’d refused to be ignored, and even though his presence was often silent, that made it no less demanding. And as much as she’d thought she’d hated it…she’d really also loved it.
She realized he could break down her walls, and in response, she worked on building them higher, using Rebel as a shield and pretending that things could get back to normal. But in reality, things were never normal, even when people thought they were.
Bishop was like magic to her. She was embarrassed to say it to herself, but every time she caught sight of him, she felt as thought there was something so mystical inside of him, it made her want to crawl into bed with him and never come out.
He made her restless, more than she’d been, because everything was shifting and changing. Bishop and Mathias showing up in their big, black van had given her the imminent sense that something was going to happen soon, and it would be big. Bigger than all of them.
Even so, she remained convinced that loving him wouldn’t protect her from anything in this world.
The office phone rang at 4:55 p.m.
On a Friday.
When I had my keys in hand, bag over my shoulder, ready to lock up behind me.
I debated ignoring the insistent ringing, but since I didn’t have any actual evening plans, I walked backward a few steps and glanced at the caller ID. And froze.
I snatched up the phone before I could stop myself, forgoing the usual niceties of “Bernie’s Investigations” in favor of a clipped “Calla speaking.”
“Calla, it’s your father.”
As hard as he’d tried to be a part of my life, we didn’t speak very often, so “Hi, Dad” wasn’t exactly a major part of my vocabulary. “What’s going on?” I said instead.
It was the way my mother had always greeted him, so I guessed, Like mother, like daughter. But just like all the times I’d spoken with him before, his voice soothed me. And, as I always did, I tried to ignore the brief moment of comfort. I was desperate for family but I’d grown up unable to trust any of them. His tone didn’t change—it wasn’t chiding or cold, but still warm and comforting when he said, “Actually, your boss called me.”
“He was worried about you.”
“You don’t have to pretend with me. I know your brother stole your money. I know you had to sell the bar,” my father said.
“When did he tell you that?”
“The day you went to see him.”
Bernie had betrayed me from the start. I didn’t understand how someone I’d told a bit of my family history to, in order to find my thieving shit of a brother, could so easily take that information and hurt me with it. “That’s true. But I’m not homeless. I’m working and I’m fine. Bernie never should’ve involved you. I didn’t ask him to.”
The first time I ever spoke to my father, I was fifteen and in the hospital.
Because of that, I associated him with the very worst thing that had happened in my life. The entire conversation was like a knife stabbed through me. And maybe I was being dramatic, but my father and I never had the typical father daughter relationship. Or any relationship at all.
My father sighed, like he was reading my mind. “Bernie contacted me in case I heard any thing from your brother. That was all he asked. And I hadn’t heard from Ned, not until last night.”
Ned was my half brother, and Jameson Bradley wasn’t his father. “Ned contacted you?”
I heard a hard swallow on the other end of the line, which meant this couldn’t be good. “Does your brother know about what happened to you?”
My mouth opened and closed. My world spun. “Yes,” I managed. Ned was a year older than me, but we’d never been close.
“He’s got the pictures,” my father admitted reluctantly.
“I’m still trying to figure that out.”
“He wants money,” I said hollowly.
Which meant he’d blown through everything Mom and Grams left, including the money from the sale of the bar that he’d sold from under my nose. He’d always had far too much influence on both of them, and he’d twisted it to his advantage, even though we were supposed to make joint decisions regarding the bar and any money to be split. “I’ll find a way—”
“I took care of it. I am taking care of it. With Bernie’s help. I didn’t want to keep you in the dark, Calla. You have a right to know every thing.”
Something about the way he said “everything” concerned me, but Bernie’s cell phone began to ring. And Bernie wasn’t in the office. He never went anywhere without that phone, and I knew that ring—an urgent one reserved for only a select few clients. Clients I never spoke to.
“Can I call you back?”
“Please do, Calla. I’d really like to talk to you . . . about more than just this.” He sounded so sincere and I convinced myself it was just years of practice. The rich were different. So was I.
I hung up and went into Bernie’s office, rooted around and found the phone on the ground. “Shit.”
I debated answering, when whoever it was hung up. And called again two seconds later.
There were texts from the same number with 911. I knew what that meant.
* * * * *
My voice was tentative when I picked up with, “I’m not Bernie.”
A man’s rough voice countered with, “I’m dying.”
Okay, then, the dying man wins.
I never knew words could haunt, but those would. Fear raced through me even though I wasn’t the one in direct danger. I took a breath and started, “If you’ll just . . .” If you’ll just hang on a minute, dying man, I’ll try to track my boss down . . . “Can you tell me your location?”
“Where . . . the fuck . . . is Bernie?” His breathing was labored, his speech peppered with pauses, like he was trying to gain the strength to get the words out.
“Please, sir, if you tell me where you are I can send help—” I started and he broke in, saying, “No. Time.” And then, “Sir? Jesus Christ,” but his voice was so weak and slurred, I had to strain to hear it.
“Bernie’s not here. He dropped this phone in his office. Please, let me try to help you—I’ll send an ambulance and the police.”
I had no idea what else to do, but I wouldn’t hang up on this man. I took a deep breath, forced the words past my tightening throat. “Okay. Tell me what you need me to do.”
Talk? “I want to help you.”
“Might be . . . the only . . . one.”
“I’ve never had this happen.”
“Me . . . neither.”
He was drawing in harsh breaths between each of the words. He sounded so labored and I figured the more I talked, the less he’d have to.
“My name’s Calla.”
“Sounds . . . soft. Pretty. Fits you.”
Soft. God. “Please don’t—” I took a deep breath and stopped before I could say die. “What happened to you?”
“Shot. Knifed. Beaten. Hit . . . by a car.”
“Just that, huh?” The sarcasm slipped out because I was nervous.
He huffed a laugh and then drew in a sharp breath and muttered, “Fuck.”
“What’s your name?”
There was a pause and I thought I’d lost him.
But then he said, “Cage.”
“Cage. I like that nickname.”
“S’my middle name. First . . . is Christian.” Christian Cage. I liked it.
“Talk,” he commanded, and God, I couldn’t let him down. So I asked the first thing that popped into my mind.
“What do you look like?”
“Gonna . . . set up a dating profile . . . for me? Better do it . . . quick.”
It was my turn to laugh. “I can certainly do that for you.”
“Just don’t . . . call me ‘sir.’ ” There was a long pause and heavy breathing that sounded like he was in tremendous pain. I glanced out the win dow, hoping to catch sight of Bernie’s truck. He never went very far if he went out at all during his time on in the office. “Six foot four. Dark . . . hair. Green eyes. Your . . . turn.”
I was cute, certainly, but not a headturning supermodel type. “I’m five foot five. And a quarter.”
He was teasing. Dying, and still teasing. Dammit, where was Bernie? “My hair’s blond. Shoulder length. And I have blue eyes.”
He wasn’t asking, but telling. “If you ask what I’m wearing, I won’t answer.”
Another laugh, another gasp of pain. “Won’t . . . ask. But I can picture it.”
“Should I even ask?”
“I’m not picturing clothes.”
My cheeks burned at the roughness of his voice. “You’re dying and you’re picturing me naked?”
“I’m a guy,” he said. And he did sound better, so who was I to argue? I laughed, then put my hand over my mouth simultaneously to keep from crying. “What . . . were you doing . . .before I called?”
“I was on the phone.” I didn’t mean for the words to come out so clipped.
“You sound sad. Can’t be . . . for me.”
“Calla . . .”
The way he said my name was like a warning and a command. The oddest thing, but I blurted out, “It’s just my family.”
Because a dying man needed my drama.
“Do you get along . . . with them?” he asked.
God, I didn’t want to talk about this. I felt the blurred edges of a panic attack closing in, sure that if I looked up I’d see the room glazed over. Instead of looking up, I forced myself into tunnel vision. “My mom died a couple of years ago. My Grams died early last year.” And I’m all alone.
“I know what being all alone’s like.”
I hadn’t realized I’d said that out loud. Cage and I shared a silent moment together, and I wondered if he realized the irony that, finally, neither of us was alone. “Grams used to tell me that being able to keep someone’s company is the most important thing in the world, and that the hard part was finding the person who you could tell your deepest, darkest secrets to.”
“What are yours?”
I almost didn’t answer, but knew I had to. “I’m scared I’ll always be alone.”
“By choice? Or . . . by design?”
“Both,” I admitted.
“Don’t . . . let that happen.”
I swear, it sounded like an order despite the hitch. “You sound better.”
“Yeah. Feel . . . beyond the pain.” That couldn’t be good. I gripped the phone hard as I forced myself still.
“God, Calla, I really fucked this up.” He laughed, but it came out more like a groan. “Should’ve known . . . I tried to fight them. My whole life, I tried . . .”
“Don’t let them win, Cage. Please . . .”
“You sound like you know what it’s like.”
“I do. And I let someone win and I hate him for it.”
There was such a long pause that I thought I’d lost him—I closed my eyes and just waited for what seemed like forever.
And then he said, “Fuck, Calla. Would strangle the son of a bitch who hurt you,” in a voice so strong and fierce that I actually took a step back and hit the wall.
“I’d let you,” I said softly.
“What did he do to you?”
“I can’t tell you.” I couldn’t tell anyone. It had been all locked up, put away. Except it never really was. “There was this guy. I was fifteen. He—” I couldn’t say much more except, “He took so much from me.”
I waited for him to say he was sorry, that he wished he could do something, because there were so many wishes associated with what had happened to me.
Instead, he growled, “Did anyone make him pay?”
Even though that’s not what Cage was asking, I thought of the money in my account. The pictures. “No,” I whispered.
“He will pay. I promise.”
How many broken promises had I waded through? “Don’t.”
“Don’t defend you?”
“I don’t goddamned believe you, Cage, so take it back.”
“Who gets into a fight with a dying man?” he asked out loud.
“I don’t believe in promises.”
“And I…don’t…break them. You need to be . . . prepared.”
Prepared? What did that mean? “Don’t do this to me.”
“What are you afraid of?” he challenged, sounding more resolved by the second.
“That you’re going to want to know what happened to me. That you’re not going to want me.” “I think you’re really . . . scared that I might . . . want you, and you’ll have to let . . . those walls . . . all the way down.”
I wanted to tell him this was a hypothetical conversation, that I was happy he was going to live, but that I’d make sure he didn’t find me.
And what are you going to do, Calla? Quit Bernie’s and run away?
“I don’t want to believe you,” I told him.
“But you do.”
“Maybe,” I admitted.
“Fucking meet my angel in the middle of hell,” he managed, more to himself than me. “Gotta go, Calla. Remember . . . what I said.”
“Cage, please let me do something for you.”
“Babe, you have no idea what…you’ve already . . . done. I . . . Shit.”
“I’m . . . coming back.”
“I believe you,” I said, because how could I not? Because I wanted him to. “Let me help you.”
There was a silence and then he coughed and then, “Gonna give you a number. Remember . . . it.”
“Bernie . . . tell him . . . immediately. Important.”
“I will.” I memorized the last thing I’d know about Cage. Ten numbers that meant nothing. “I’ve got it.”
I repeated them and he sighed. “Good. Sorry . . . so sorry.”
Sorry? For dying? For giving me a relatively simple job? For not letting me help him? “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, Cage.”
“Jesus. You did . . . everything.”
“Cage . . .”
But the line clicked off. I blinked back tears, unable to stop the small sob that made my shoulders lift involuntarily. I was yelling then, slamming the desk with my fists before I pulled my shit together.
Feeling like I’d failed.
Another loss. My whole life was loss and pain, and why I thought it could be any different, I had no idea.
I looked up at a picture behind Bernie’s desk, hanging low on the wall. I’d never really noticed it before, because if I was in here, Bernie was in his big chair, which partially covered it. Why it was hung so low was another story, but I finally realized that Bernie was one of the men wearing an Army uniform. I grabbed a magnifying glass to look at the names on the uniforms. There was one man, his head turned to the side…
“Bernie!” I dropped the magnifying glass and turned, wanting to hug him. I handed him his phone and started babbling about Cage and the numbers.
His face paled. He looked behind him, out the window and then tossed me a set of keys. I caught them instinctively. “Black truck in the corner of the lot. Walk to it like it’s yours. Get in. Hit the GPS and follow where it takes you. Money’s in the glove compartment. Do you understand?”
“There’s trouble, honey. Please, do what I say. Now.”
He walked out then. I don’t know why, but I grabbed the picture from his wall before I went out the back, grabbing my bag along the way.
Two weeks earlier, he’d gotten a call that made him close his office door. He never closed the door. And when he’d finally emerged, he’d been pale and distracted. Twitchy, even.
For the rest of that week, he answered all his own calls. But then things seemed to go back to normal. We dealt with the usual cases . . . some heartbreaking, some frivolous.
I supposed I could call in my father, ask for help. Or I could throw off everything, once and for all, and thank Cage by actually going free.
When I got into the black car and turned the key in the ignition, I’d made the choice. As I pulled the car out of the lot, I heard gunshots, four in a row, and I forced myself not to go back and check on Bernie. Instead, I followed his orders and got the hell out of there. Running from my past and present . . . and realizing I had no clue where my future lay.