Chapter 1 - Logan
“No, no, no!” The temperature gauge in my beat-up Plymouth Sundance’s dashboard ratcheted into the red zone. “Come on, not now!”
I slapped the steering wheel with both hands, like a moron, and the impact vibrated up my arms into my sprained shoulder. Sharp pain coursed through my muscles. “Fuck!”
The Sundance rolled weakly onto the highway’s shoulder, sputtered, and died. With the engine went the air conditioning, and in no time, the interior was sweltering from the late afternoon California sun. I climbed stiffly out of the car, my sore hips and legs protesting the movement, and popped the hood to survey the damage. Smoke billowed from the engine and blew into my face. I coughed hard, and my ribs ached with the force of it.
Of course this would happen here, just a few miles north of Elkin Lake. The last place I wanted to be. I ran my good hand through hair and grimaced at the sweat. The fast-paced travel had not treated me well so far. But I had plans, and I really, really needed something to go right.
Sucked to be me, apparently. “You just had to screw me over, too, huh?” I kicked the Plymouth’s tire, and then sat down in the dirt, leaning up against the car to search for a local towing company. I called the first number I found.
I had planned to hit Los Angeles before nightfall, grab a hotel room on the edge of the city, wake up, eat huevos rancheros somewhere, and then drive east. Kansas City was sounding good. Maybe Austin. Anywhere but the miserable, fog-drenched hills of San Francisco. Tinny hold music played in my ear as I held my phone up with my shoulder. I pulled up the leg of my sweatpants and examined the long, purpling bruise that ran across my shin where my father had kicked my legs out from under me. It was still swollen and throbbed under my fingers, but it didn’t seem to be getting any worse.
“You’ll do as I say, Paddy!”
My father’s barking commands from last night still echoed in my head. I hated that fucking infantilizing nickname. I could almost still feel the freezing concrete under my cheek.
“You’re a disgrace to the Viper’s Nest. If you want to stay under our protection, you’ll make my trouble worthwhile and do what I tell you.”
The smell of liquor had been thick on his breath when he’d hissed those words into my ear. The pain in my shoulder was sharp like a stabbing when he’d wrenched my arm behind my back and pushed me to the ground, keeping me pinned with a knee on my back. I’d thrashed against the hold, tried to break free, but he had probably a hundred pounds on me. It had been hopeless. The copper taste of blood had filled my mouth.
A grouchy, gruff voice in my ear brought me back into reality, and I quickly gave the towing company on the line my location. Once I hung up, I tried to shake off the memory. I was free now. I had a car—it was the same age as I was, but a car nonetheless—and it probably only needed a minor repair. I had a skillset that would allow me to get a job anywhere in the country. Every hospital needed nurses. My stop in Elkin Lake would be brief, and then I’d be back on the road.
Sure, Elkin Lake was Hell’s Ankhor’s territory. Sure, they were the direct rival to the Viper’s Nest. But I wasn’t a Viper, and no one here knew I was Crave’s son. It’d be fine.
If I repeated that enough to myself, maybe I’d eventually believe it.
The tow truck arrived as the sun was creeping toward the horizon. The driver maneuvered his immense bulk out of the cab like a clown emerging from a tiny car. He slapped a ball cap onto his bald head and appraised the car with narrow eyes.
“You been waiting long?”
“No.” My bad leg throbbed as I stood and shifted weight onto it. “I don’t know. An hour or so.”
“Hm.” He poked around the engine for a few minutes, then slammed the hood closed. “I gotta take it in, that’s for sure.”
“I figured,” I said. “If you can go ahead and take it, I’ll call a cab.”
The man shook his head. “Don’t waste your money, kid.” He nodded at the tow truck. “Hop in.”
Figuring I didn’t have much to lose, I grabbed my bag from my car and did as he said. The truck rumbled south on the potholed highway, with my sad purple sedan rattling along behind.
“You from around here?” the driver asked.
“Just passing through,” I said. No way in hell I’d tell a local I was from Viper’s Nest territory. It wasn’t a lie, either. I was only passing through—if things had gone according to plan, I wouldn’t be stopping here at all. And hopefully I wouldn’t be here long. My stomach clenched as we turned off the highway and toward Elkin Lake. “Kind of in a hurry. My car chose a bad time to die.”
“Might not be dead. I’ll take a look once I get it to the shop and let you know the verdict.”
“So you’re the mechanic, too?”
He shrugged. “I do a little bit of everything around here.” He handed me a business card off the dashboard. “I’ll drop you off in town. Call me in about an hour.”
Elkin Lake was nestled in a valley surrounded by a vista of mountains. The main strip was dotted with bars and restaurants and shops, none higher than three stories so as to not disrupt the beautiful views. It could’ve been any northern California tourist town if not for the sleek cruiser motorcycles outnumbering the cars.
The truck stopped outside a bar in the center of the strip where the motorcycles seemed to congregate the most.
“Hang here for a bit,” the mechanic said. “Try the Irish coffee, it’ll make you feel better.”
A biker bar. Of course, I had to pass the time in a biker bar. Sweat prickled on the back of my neck. What was worse? Going into the bar, or trying to explain why I couldn’t? The bar was guaranteed to be brimming with Hell’s Ankhor members. Anxiety twisted in my chest. I’d have to sit there, surrounded by Hell’s Ankhor guys, pretending like their sheer presence didn’t set my teeth on edge. Logically I knew it was impossible for any of them to know who I was, but I’d been raised to hate them indiscriminately. But in my case, what was supposed to be hate had become a bone-deep fear. Hell’s Ankhor had better territory, more members, and a reputation of taking no shit from those trying to encroach on their boundaries or disrespect their club. If the Viper’s Nest was a group of rabid mutts, Hell’s Ankhor was a well-trained pit bull. They didn’t fight without reason, but when they did, they fought hard.
The doors clicked loudly as the driver unlocked the already unlocked doors. I took the hint.
“Thanks,” I said.
The driver nodded.
My Sundance grew smaller and smaller until the truck turned a corner and disappeared. Despair fell over me suddenly like a heavy blanket. My father hated me, my brother had abandoned me, the Vipers had lost me my job. In my world, that jacked-up old car was my most reliable friend. And now here I was, in enemy territory, empty-handed.
The bar’s metal door loomed above me like the entrance to a hospital morgue. Above the door, a simple unobtrusive sign read BALLAST in black block letters.
Trapped in Elkin Lake. Exactly where Dad wanted me to be. Exactly what I had planned on avoiding. The only thing I had going for me was my anonymity. It wasn’t late yet, so the bar was likely to be quiet. I wasn’t going to stroll in there and try to make friends. A drink or two to take the edge off, to uncoil the knot in my stomach and dull the throb in my body, and then I’d call the shop and be on my way. It was probably just a coolant leak. It’d be fine. I’d be in Los Angeles before midnight.
I walked through the door of the bar and almost directly into a man’s broad, muscled chest.
A chest wrapped in a leather jacket.
A leather jacket with a Hell’s Ankhor patch at the heart.
A patch with a “P” on it.
Shit. I was staring–definitely staring–at the Hell’s Ankhor president. I’d always thought I had a knack for pessimism, but apparently things in the real world could always get worse than I ever imagined.
Shakily, I stepped backward, and the man reached out to steady me with a firm grip on my biceps. The pressure hit a bruise, sending a bolt of pain through my arm. I winced, instinctively trying to pull away. It wasn’t just the pain, though. Having a biker’s hands on me without permission turned my stomach.
“Whoa, there,” he said, in a low, gravelly voice. His dark eyes tracked over my face, lingering on the bruise on my chin. He shook a strand of dark hair out of his eyes and furrowed his defined brow. “You all right?” The muscle in his square jaw clenched slightly, and I followed the tension down his strong neck to his broad shoulders until I wrenched my attention back to his face. The warmth in his eyes shocked me. His gaze wasn’t assessing or suspicious, just… no, it couldn’t be concern. That wouldn’t make any sense.
I stood frozen in place. I should’ve put distance between us, but I couldn’t tear myself away.
My heartbeat quickened. Not from anxiety this time, not out of fear of his strong grip—but from the faint smell of sweat, leather, and sandalwood.
He stepped the barest amount closer.
A confusing clash of sensations rushed through me: I needed to get away from the president as quickly as possible, but his deep, intense eyes drew me in. Like a bug in Venus flytrap. The instant rush of attraction that cut through me was unfamiliar, but undeniable. It had never been so sudden, so strong, so dizzying. And for a biker? After everything my father had put me through, the only thing I felt for bikers was disgust. At least, until now.
But it still wasn’t enough to outweigh the fear. If I wanted a life of my own—a life away from Crave and the Viper’s Nest—I needed to get out of Elkin Lake as soon as possible.