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The wind blew off the sea as the three Harleys made their way through the last series of snaking turns and hit the straight stretch on Highway 1 running parallel to the ocean. The night was well under way, a fact that Savva "Reaper" Pajari was well aware of. He had to report to the president of his club, Czar, the moment they arrived back in Caspar, but time didn't matter for that. Even if Czar was at his home in Sea Haven, tucked in close to his wife, Reaper'd just hit the roof and climb in through the bedroom window. He'd done it more than once.
He lived for two things: riding free and fighting. He needed to feel solid muscle under his knuckles. He needed to feel fists hitting his body, tapping into that well of ice that covered every emotion. That swift explosion of violence and sweet pain as fists connected was his life, and had been his life since he was five. Now, he needed to stay sharp somehow, in this new bullshit direction the club had taken.
He rode along the highway, aware of the others on either side of him. Brothers, some for over thirty years. Men he counted on. Men he called family. Still, he was apart from them and he knew it, even if they didn't. He turned his head toward the ocean. Waves sprayed up into the air, rushing over rocks and battering at the cliffs. Sometimes he felt those battered rocks were him, time wearing him away, little by little.
His soul had been gone so long ago that he couldn't remember having one. Now, his heart was slowly disappearing. There wasn't a place on his body without a scar. He had another to add from this last trip. He also would have to have Ink tat his back, three more skulls to add to the collection of those resting in the roots of the tree on his back.
Viktor Prakenskii, the man known as Czar, was the best man he knew. Reaper's job was to stand in front of Czar, his self-appointed task from the time he was a little boy. He'd been doing it for so long now, he didn't know any other way of life. He stood in front of all his brothers and sisters-in Torpedo Ink, his club. He was proud to wear the club colors. He'd die for those colors and still detested any mission he ran if he had to take them off.
They turned off the main highway onto Caspar Road leading to the town of Caspar, where they'd set up home. They'd designed their compound around the old paymaster's building for the Caspar logging company. They had spent the first few months working on the building, turning it into their clubhouse. It housed multiple bedrooms, a bar, their meeting room-known as the chapel-and a kitchen. They shared bathrooms, whichever was closest to their assigned sleeping room. Czar had insisted each of them purchase a home nearby. He wanted those roots put down deep.
Reaper didn't give a damn where they all slept. As long as he could defend his club and their president, he was fine. The compound had a bed and right now, he needed one. He was forty-eight hours without sleep. He'd stitched up the wound in his side himself, making a piss-poor job of it too, but all he'd had was a little whiskey to disinfect it, and that had burned like hell. It still did.
They rode up to the compound, and Storm and Keys parked their bikes while he scanned the lot. Either Czar was home or at the bar. Reaper was fairly certain he'd be at the bar waiting for a report. He didn't like to disturb his wife, Blythe, or their four adopted children. Reaper didn't shut his bike down and waited for the others to turn to him.
"Goin' to find Czar," he said, unnecessarily, but they were looking at him like he should say something. He didn't like stupid shit, like the formalities that seemed so important to others. He didn't care if people liked him, in fact, he preferred they stay the hell away, except for his brothers, who understood him and made it clear they expected him to at least talk once in a while.
"I can report in," Keys offered. "You could use the downtime."
Reaper shook his head. "Won't be able to sleep right away. I have to check on him anyway. You know how I am."
"Want company?" Storm asked.
He shook his head. "Not necessary. Savage will be with him, probably a few others. Get some sleep. We all earned it." Savin "Savage" Pajari was his birth brother. Like Reaper, he acted as sergeant at arms, protecting Czar at all times. Between the two men, they had their president covered whether he liked it or not around the clock. "I already texted Czar we were comin' in when we were an hour out."
He was certain if he did that, Czar would go to the bar rather than have Reaper come to his home-exactly what Reaper wanted. It was the new bartender. Reaper didn't like anything out of the ordinary. He didn't trust it. The woman was definitely something out of the ordinary. Code could find dirt on anyone, but he hadn't found a single trace of her anywhere. She worked for cash, under the table. She wore designer jeans, but she drove a beat-up car on its last leg, rust breaking through the paint. The fucking thing smoked every time she turned the engine over.
Torpedo Ink had a garage up and running. Did she take her car there to get it fixed? Hell no. She drove off every night thinking no one knew where she was going. That was the hell of it. She drove back toward Fort Bragg, took Highway 20 and turned off at the Egg Taking Station, a campground in the Jackson Demonstration Forest. Why the fuck would a classy woman be bartending in a biker bar, drive a beat-up Honda Civic older than she was and be camping? It made no sense. He didn't like puzzles and Anya Rafferty was not only a puzzle, but one big headache.
Reaper had watched her for over a month. Five weeks and three days to be precise. He'd learned she was a hard worker. She listened to people, remembered their names and what they liked to drink. She flirted just enough to get good tips, but not enough to cause fights. She was generous with the waitresses, sharing tips she didn't have to share. She was careful and guarded yet gave the illusion she was open. She was kind to those less fortunate.
He'd watched her give a homeless man a blanket she carried in her car, and twice she'd brought him coffee and a meal. Twice she'd spent money he was certain she didn't have to get food or shoes for someone living on the streets. She seemed to have an affinity for the homeless, and he was certain she knew all of them by name. She volunteered in the soup kitchen Saturday mornings even though she couldn't have had more than a couple of hours of sleep.
She didn't flinch around the bikers, but it was obvious she wasn't from their world and didn't have a clue how to fit in. She took her cues from Czar and sometimes asked him questions. She'd never asked Reaper a single question, but she sent him a few shy smiles, which he didn't return. He'd spent more time in the bar in the five weeks she'd been there than he'd ever spent in a bar in his life.
Reaper glanced away from the compound, up toward the bar. He could see the lights shining through the dark from the banks of windows. His heart accelerated. His cock jerked hard in his jeans. That was unacceptable and that was why the woman had to go.
Every one of those in his club had been taught to be in complete control of their bodies at all times. They'd been beaten, starved, tortured and had unspeakable things done to them in order to shape them into disciplined killing machines. He felt very little emotion and certainly not physical attractions. The bitches partying hard, getting it on with anyone and everyone, did nothing for him. Not one thing. He often walked through a room full of half naked or naked women and his body didn't so much as stir.
One look at Anya Rafferty. Listening to the sound of her voice. Her fucking laugh. The way all that hair fell around her face like a dark cloud. A waterfall. She had more hair than two women put together, and he found he thought a lot about that hair when he should be thinking about keeping his president alive. Or himself. He refused to allow his cock to drive him. That part of his anatomy would never drive him. He didn't trust anyone, especially not a woman who made his body ache until his teeth hurt.
He sighed and turned his Harley, heading for the bar. He'd told Czar Anya had to go. She was a problem. Nothing about her added up. Nothing. Protecting Czar was his number-one priority, and if she wasn't forthcoming, she had to go. He told himself that shit, but he knew it wasn't the truth. He hated bullshit. Detested it. Especially when he was trying to bullshit himself. He could make all the excuses in the world, but the truth was, the bartender upset him. She got under his skin without trying.
Once in the parking area, Reaper swung his leg over his motorcycle and forced himself to stand upright, his two feet planted on solid ground. He'd been on his bike so long he wasn't certain he had the legs for earth any longer. Placing his dome on the bike he did a casual sweep of the parking lot. In that one moment, he took in every detail of the cars and lines of motorcycles parked there. He recognized several of the bikes. Two prospects were lounging close, keeping an eye on the bikes. He didn't acknowledge them, but he saw every detail. He removed the small leather bag from one of the compartments hidden in his bike and made his way across the parking area toward the bar, still looking around to every conceivable parking spot.
What he didn't see was the bartender's old rust bucket. He paused for a moment at the bottom of the stairs, breathing deeply, not knowing if that made him happy or if his mind went somewhere he refused to acknowledge. She was gone. Czar had done what he'd asked, and her presence was removed. That should make him happy. Well, he was never happy. He didn't know how to be. He'd forgotten. Relief maybe-except now he had to go to the campground and make certain she was okay. Damn it. He swore under his breath and climbed the steps leading up to the bar. His gut burned like hell with every step, but it wasn't nearly as bad as the ache in his chest.
Music poured out of the building, a loud, drubbing beat. That only added to the pounding in his head. He ignored it and yanked open the door. Raised voices and laughter mixed with the clink of glasses. Funny, now that it was an established biker bar, the place was hopping almost every night.
He stepped to the side of the door and took a long look around, noting every jacket or vest with colors. Mostly small-time clubs, or weekenders. A couple of legitimate road warriors. Three wannabe hard-asses, drinking, looking for women and most likely a fight. Five, sitting in the corner, badasses wearing Demon patches. They noticed him the moment he walked in. All five were packing and they weren't drinking, at least not enough to say they were there for a good time. He did a quick inventory of his body. He could move fast if needed. He never minded a good fight and most likely, any minute, he'd be welcoming one. He let the Demons see his gaze linger on them before he allowed himself to scan along the bar.
He had a gun tucked in his waistband at the small of his back. Another was down in his boot along with a knife. A third gun was inside his jacket, easy access, just a cross-body pull and he was in business. The truth was, he rarely used a gun or a knife when he killed. He preferred silence, but weapons came in handy occasionally and he was proficient in the use of all of them.
He knew he was looking for the bartender. Anya. He fucking loved that name. It suited her face. Her voice. It was possible her piece of junk car had broken down and she had hitched a ride with someone. He didn't see her anywhere and it pissed him off that he'd even looked. Worse, the pressure in his chest grew.
Tonight's bartender, Preacher, looked harassed. He glanced up from the sea of customers and shot Reaper a welcoming grin, his eyes scanning for wounds, dwelling for a moment on the blood on Reaper's shirt and then jumping back to his face. Reaper gave him a nod, indicating he was fine, and Preacher nodded back. He jerked his chin toward the hall behind the bar. There was a doorway to the left of the bar, but Reaper stalked across the room and flipped up the jointed wooden slab that allowed him to walk through the opening to get behind the bar. He moved down the long hallway straight to the office.
The door to the back office was closed, signifying a meeting of some kind. If the door was closed, any waitress or non-club member stayed out. Unzipping his jacket, Reaper went right on in, hoping Savage didn't put a bullet in him as he waltzed through the door. Savage was unpredictable at times. His brother gave a quick scan of his body, much the way Preacher had. Czar stood up to face him, doing the same. He frowned when he saw the blood. Shit, he'd forgotten his shirt was a mess. It wasn't all his, either. Savage's gaze jumped back to his face.
"I'm fine," he said, to stop the questions.
Code had been poring over books with Czar, which was laughable. Czar hated number crunching and only pretended to listen to Code half the time. With Czar and Code at the table were two other club members, Absinthe and Ice, Storm's twin brother. All had their eyes on him and the blood on his shirt. Something was up to have so many gathered this late at night.
"What happened?" Czar snapped before anyone else could say anything.