Saving AxeSabrina Paige
To my husband, who taught me what it means to be "barn sour".
To my darling Emma, the light of my life - I love you bigger than the whole giant world.
To my readers, who have been so gracious in their encouragement.
And, finally, to all who serve in the armed forces and the families who support them. We owe you more than we could possibly repay.
Midway Upon the Journey of Our Life
I Found Myself Within a Forest Dark,
For the Straightforward Pathway Had Been Lost.
~ Dante's Inferno, Canto I (Longfellow's translation)
I stood over the lifeless body, my fists clenched so tightly I could barely feel my hands. The only thing left now, the only thing I felt, was rage, pulsing through my veins. The Inferno Motorcycle Club had taken everything from me - my soul, my honor...
And now this.
Mad Dog had taken everything from me. But nothing they had done before would compare to this.
This eclipsed everything else.
They would pay. He would pay.
I would burn the club to the ground.
I would kill them all.
West Bend, Colorado
My heart rate finally began to slow when I saw the “Welcome to West Bend” sign. It had been racing since we left Las Vegas, adrenaline pumping through my veins, all of my senses on high alert. It had been a while since I’d felt this way, especially given my past. Five combat tours would make you pretty much immune to anything. This, though - on the run, sabotaged by my own club, by the man I’d been protecting for the last few years? Hauling ass from the scene of an ambush? I wasn’t sure if it was fear or anger that had my heart nearly thumping out of my chest. Probably a mixture of both. Betrayal would do that to you.
West Bend, Colorado was home, and it felt safe, even if it wasn’t really. Safer, maybe, at least temporarily. But certainly not safe, not with the trouble I was in, the trouble I was about to bring to the town. You couldn’t tell that to my body, though; my response to my hometown was a visceral one. Love for this place was written into my DNA. It was part of who I was, even if who I was had gotten so far off track in recent years that even I didn’t recognize myself anymore.
The summer air, thick with the smell of cut hay, seemed to change as I passed the city limit sign. “City” was not quite the right word for it, of course, not with a population of barely over two thousand people. But it was a bustling metropolis compared to what it was when I was growing up and there were less than three hundred people in town.
My Harley seemed more content now too, the rumbling of the motor between my legs becoming more of a purr as I wound my way through the mountain pass toward home. The sky was a blue so bright it was almost blinding, a shock to the senses after living in smog-infested Orange County, California. The nostalgia I’d always had for this place made it painful when I was gone, but it had been three years since I’d been able to bring myself back here. I wasn’t sure how my dad was going to react to my coming home, especially considering who I was bringing with me and what trouble was following us. It had been three years since I’d been home.
Three years since my mom’s funeral.
Three years since the last time I’d spoken to my dad.
~ ~ ~
“You’re not bringing that kind of poison back here, Cade Austin,” he said, referring to my brand-new affiliation with the Inferno Motorcycle Club.
“I’m not coming back home, dad,” I said.
He squinted at me, staring, his eyes unblinking, and I had to look away, feeling guilty under his inspection. “At least your mother isn’t alive to see this.”
“Dad.” It was the lowest blow he could make, bringing my mother into this.
On the day of her funeral, no less.
“No,” he said. “I’m glad she never found out. To the end, she was still proud of you. She still thought you were a good Marine. She was so happy with you since you’d gotten out of the Corps, when you were made supervisor at the warehouse, living out in California.”
I swallowed hard. My father had the ability to reduce me to nothing with a single sentence. My mother died proud of me, when she had no cause to be proud of what I’d become.
Of who I'd become.
He was right; it would have killed her, even before the cancer had gotten her, to know the things I’d done. She knew I was a rider, but would never have predicted I would cross the line to the other side of the law.
“I’m not the same person I was before, dad.”
“That’s for sure.” He stared at me, disapproval and disappointment etched into his features. Looking at him then, I realized how much my mom’s illness- and probably, all of my shit- had aged him. I’d never thought of him as an old man, and he looked old. I had a sudden pang of regret then, so strong it nearly brought me to my knees. In that moment, I wanted more than anything to take it all back, to tell him I was coming back home to run the ranch. Then, just like that, the moment was gone, replaced by a sense of inevitability.
“Dad, I -” I stopped.
What could I say? I had nothing to say. I’d chosen my path, and there was no changing it.
I’d been too far gone for a long time now.
“Unless you’re going to tell me that you’re walking away from that gang of criminals, I’ve got nothing to say to you.” He exhaled and shrugged his shoulders, his weariness apparent.
More than anything, I wanted to hug him, the way I did each time I came home from deployment. Back then, Dad would clasp my shoulder and say, “Welcome home where you belong, son.” But I couldn’t bring myself to do it, not even knowing I was leaving home for the last time.
I couldn’t walk away from the MC now. It was the only place I belonged anymore.
It was the only place dark enough to handle all of my demons.
“Keep that shit away from me, and away from this town. You want to destroy yourself? Fine. But you’re not bringing it around here, and I want nothing to do with it, you hear?”
I clenched my jaw, resolved. “Don’t worry, dad. I won’t be back. You can count on that.”
He looked at me for a long moment then. “I hope to God that’s not true, son.”
~ ~ ~
It was the last time I’d spoken to him, and now here I was, on my way back home, still wearing my leather cut, still a member of the Inferno MC, although probably not for long. It was also debatable how long I’d be alive. I had no idea what my dad was going to do when he saw us pull up in the driveway, but this was the only place I had to go. I literally had no one else. I’d burned a lot of bridges outside the MC, and this had always been a safe place. It was only temporary, and there were lives at stake other than my own.
April Holder and her daughter Mackenzie followed behind me in the brown minivan, closely trailed by April’s husband Crunch. From the outside, it looked like a caravan of people on a fun family road trip, but this was about as far from that as you could possibly get. You see, I’d been tasked with Crunch’s murder. And we’d just left a fallen brother behind.
“Sure you don’t need anything else?” My mountain of groceries was scattered across the checkout counter, enough food for a family of ten even though it was just me, at least for right now. I looked up at “Connie C.,” as everyone called her, the only other occupant in the tiny general store in West Bend. Grey hair swept to the top of her head in a loose bun and a plaid apron tied around her waist, Connie reminded me of my mother. Or what I imagined my mother would look like if s
he were still alive.
It was like deja vu, coming back here. A memory of my mother baking in her apron flashed before my eyes, and I tried to shake off the momentary feeling of sadness.
The past was the past. There was no sense in crying over it
You knew you couldn’t come back here without all those memories resurfacing.
“No, ma’am,” I said. “I’m sure.”
“Now there, don’t ma’am me,” Connie said as she reached for a stack of bags. “I knew you before you were knee-high to a grasshopper, June. You know my name; there’s no need to get all formal on me. Unless the big city changed you, being a hotshot doctor and all.” Her mouth was turned up at the corners in a teasing smile.
“I hope I haven’t changed that much, Connie C.,” I said. “This place still looks the same. Is Connie P. still over at the hair salon?”
“She is,” Connie said, handing me some bags as she started bagging my groceries. “Still turning old ladies’ hair blue. Don’t know how she stays open. I guess some people never learn. Oh Lord, I don’t guess it feels like coming back to a big city since you’re used to places bigger than this, but West Bend has grown since you left.”
“I noticed,” I said. Connie C. barely paused to breathe before she kept going. I didn’t mind the talking. Incessant chatter from other people rather suited me. I wasn’t much for talking myself, not anymore anyway.
“We’ve got the new traffic light now, and ski season has been bringing in quite a few tourists. They say we’re going to be the new skiing hotspot now, like Crested Butte. Dear Lord, I hope not, all those rich folks coming in, wanting all kinds of exotic foods ordered. Of course, it’s not like I couldn’t use the business. And it’ll do great things for you, won’t it, with the bed and breakfast? That is what you’re doing with Mrs. Crawford’s old place, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Ma’am - I mean, Connie C.,” I said. “I’m hoping I’ll have it all fixed up before ski season this year.”
“Mrs. Crawford kept it up pretty well, even after Mr. Crawford passed,” Connie said. “She got some help with repairs for a while from Mr. Austin. Well, of course you know Mr. Austin.” Her voice trailed off, her last sentence laden with meaning.
I felt a flush rise to my cheeks at the mention of the name.
I couldn’t think of Mr. Austin without thinking of his son.
Of course I knew the Austins. And I certainly knew Cade. In the most Biblical of senses. Of course, that was before everything that happened, everything that tore me apart.
Everything that tore Cade and I apart.
It was never their fault. You knew you would have to deal with this, coming back here, I reminded myself. You can’t run forever.
That’s exactly what my therapist in Chicago had said. You can change your name, your job, your location, but it won’t reboot your system, she’d said. At some point, you’ll have to stop running.
I was an expert at running. It was like second nature. Better than some other ways of dealing with shit, though, right? Some people drank, took pills, gambled.
Me? When things got tough, I ran.
The problem was, my therapist didn't know the real reason I was running back home. No one knew. Because if anyone knew the real reason I had left Chicago, they wouldn’t see me in the same way. They wouldn’t see me as the good officer, the Navy doctor who had done her duty, completed her tours on the ship and in Afghanistan. They wouldn’t see me as the girl who’d made good after her family tragedy, who had gone to medical school, joined the Navy.
“You know that Mrs. Austin passed a few years ago,” Connie said. “Cancer.”
“I hadn’t heard,” I said. She was like my second mother in high school, and Cade’s place was my second home.
Until my parents were killed. Until what happened with my sister. I still had a hard time even thinking the word, let alone speaking it. Suicide.
“Oh, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, Junebug,” Connie said. “I thought you might have heard. But no, I guess you probably wouldn’t want to keep in touch with them, after what happened.”
My head was swimming, and I could barely hear Connie’s words. It was a mistake coming back here. I knew better than this. After all these years away, I didn't want to deal with dredging up the past. All the sympathetic looks, the head shaking and platitudes about the unfairness of life. I didn't want to hear any of it.
But I'd brought it on myself.
And then, to buy the house right beside Mr. Austin? It made me some kind of masochist. It was some kind of fucked up.
“No,” I said, my voice faltering. “I haven’t talked to Cade in years.”
Not since I left West Bend.
“Oh,” Connie said. “I’m sorry, honey. I overstepped my bounds, mentioning them.”
I cleared my throat, shaking my head like I could discard the feelings threatening to drown me. My head was spinning. “No, Connie,” I said. “It’s been a long time.”
“Coming back here must be hard.”
“No, it’s fine.”
It wasn’t fine.
I thought I had put more distance between myself and this place, enough to return and not be affected. Now I was seventeen again and everything had just happened yesterday.
And then to hear her mention Cade. My heart still raced at the thought of his name, even after all these years.
Even after all that had ripped us apart.
“He joined the Marines, you know,” she said, as if she could read my thoughts.
“Did he?” I asked, like I didn't know what he'd done after high school. Like he hadn't always been at the back of my mind, every time I'd gone to work. Every time I'd treated a Marine in uniform. When I'd deployed with the Marines.
I’d walk out into the waiting area of one of the health clinics, chart in hand, and call for a patient, and there he would be, looking up at me with that same crooked smile he'd always had, that smug sexy smile that made me want to smack him and screw him all at the same time.
And then I'd blink, and he would be gone. I looked for him everywhere, no matter where I was - at the big Navy hospital in Norfolk, overseas in Okinawa. In Afghanistan.
It would have been too easy to just pick up the phone and call him. Or send him an email. But I never did. And then I finally stopped looking for him.
What the hell could I say, after all that had happened? After all that had passed between us?
“He did really well in the Marines, from what I heard,” Connie said, her voice shaking me out of my thoughts. “His dad was so proud of him. Got a Silver Star back in - Oh Lord, it's been a while back now."