Prologue – Present Day
Boots signed for his belongings and walked out of the jail, squinting at the hot Phoenix sun as soon as he stepped outside. Once his eyes adjusted, he saw his long-haired, tattooed friend, Finn McGregor, leaning into his Harley and watching him. Finn was called “Snake” by most of the guys, and he also went by VP since he had been patched over as vice president of the Phoenix Skulls. But to Boots, at least one to one, he was just his crazy, Irish friend. They’d been through a lot together in the short year they’d known each other, and Finn’s green eyes were some of the most expressive ones that Boots had ever seen. But for the first time since he met the young, friendly Irishman, he was afraid to look into them. It had been one hell of a few weeks…the worst in Boots’ life, and that was saying a lot.
He finally stepped down toward the parking lot, reaching Snake in a few steps. Snake put his hand out and the two men clasped fists and brought it in for a quick hug. When Boots pulled back Snake said, “How bad was it?”
Boots didn’t want to talk about it, and the bruises on his face and knuckles should tell his friend all he really needed to know. If he wanted more of the story, he’d have to see the binder holding Boots’ ribs together and the spaces way in the back where there used to be teeth, before the side of his face made contact with a massive fist. None of that was the worst part, though. The worst scars Boots would carry inside of him, the way he had with everything else his entire life. “Not too,” he said. “But if anyone knows what it’s like in there, it’s you.”
Snake grinned. “Hey, I haven’t been locked up in over a year.”
Boots smiled. “Some kind of record, huh?” Boots had a rough life, but as an adult he’d avoided jail, until now. “Where’s my bike?”
“Prince is on his way to pick you up in the van. I just didn’t want to leave you waiting out here by yourself.” That made sense considering that he was the pariah of the community these days; even in the parking lot of the busiest jail in Maricopa County it surprised Boots that some of the “community” weren’t waiting for him with pitchforks and torches. What interested him the most about Snake’s “answer” to his question was that the Irishman avoided telling him where his bike had ended up.
“Okay, thanks. But where’s my bike?”
Snake grimaced and said, “What’s left of it is at the shop.”
“Fuck.” The sound of the Phoenix Skulls van pulling into the lot sent a jolt of relief through Boots’ body. He was never one to back down from a fight, but as of late he’d had more than his fair share. Just then all he wanted was to be in his own trailer, in his own shower and his own clothes and his own bed. Three weeks in county jail had been a special kind of hell…
“Dax Marshall’s old lady is here.”
Boots took his eyes off the van as Prince parked it alongside them, and looked back at Snake. “Jace asked her to come?”
Snake nodded. “He said he didn’t trust anyone else to defend you.”
Boots sighed. “You think that means he believes me?”
Snake, always the peacemaker, nodded enthusiastically. “Of course he believes you. Brother, we all know you and we know there’s no fucking way you’d ever…you know, do that.”
Snake couldn’t even bring himself to say it…what Boots was being charged with. Boots didn’t blame him; the words were ugly, the accusation even uglier. “Hey, man, we better get a move on,” Prince said. “There’s a group of about a dozen people out front with signs and bullhorns and shit. I’d lie down in back if I were you as we go by.”
Fuck. Boots wished he would wake up from this nightmare and find out that it was all just that…a horrible dream. He wished so many things, the least of which was that he’d never laid eyes on Celeste Hall…or Sadie Gray…whatever the fuck she was calling herself these days. Maybe then, he wouldn’t be a walking target, persona non grata in the first place in his life that had ever really felt like home.
“There he is!” Before Boots could even react to the loud voices, Snake and Prince had their hands on him, pushing him into the van. His first impulse was to stand his ground, and fight, no matter how tired or outnumbered he was. But there was still a part of his brain working rationally, and he knew they were right and he had to get the fuck out of there before things exploded and he ended up right back inside the cement building that loomed behind him.
He was practically shoved into the van by his brothers, and the door was slammed shut, but not before he heard the ugly accusations being hurled in his direction. He’d heard it all before he was locked up, and again while he was inside for three weeks, awaiting his bail hearing…but it never got easier. Hearing it still made him sick to his stomach and although he knew it wasn’t true, it still made him loathe himself.
Prince jumped into the driver’s seat and Boots sat on the floor of the van with his back up against the side. He covered his ears with his hands and they were a mile away in sixty seconds, but Boots didn’t uncover his ears. Even over the noise of the van’s V-8 engine and the stereo that Prince had cranked out, he could hear it…the ugly, hateful word they’d labeled him with…the word that had not only taken up residence in his head but seeped into his soul. For a few seconds he believed that he just couldn’t take it any longer. He had to make it stop. He pulled his head forward, and then slammed it back into the side of the van, and it worked for one blessed second. But then they started again…slowly, and in a whisper. Before long the single voice turned into a collection of voices, voices he recognized. They were the voices of his community, the voices of his brothers and sisters in the club, his new family. They were the voices of the very people who taught him the true meaning of love and respect and family. They were the ones that spoke up for him when he was first accused, the ones who professed to always have his back. But Boots had seen the change in them all…he’d watched as the doubt had seeped into their eyes. And now their voices were in his head, and collectively they were whispering one horrific word. In the past three weeks he’d even considered taking his own life, before someone else did. The only thing stopping him was his fear that when he was dead and gone, that one word would define him forever…maybe it would even be etched into his gravestone. One word, one lie he feared everyone else believed…