Coal Excerpt

Prologue

~Coal~

 

The pounding in my head continues to assault my ears. Chad’s party last night was epic, and my head is making sure to remind me of the good time I had.

Bang.

Bang.

Thump.

Thump. Bang. Thump. Bang.

The rhythm is now unsteady.

“Trevor, wake your ass up right the fuck now!” my dad yells in his Army Ranger voice that has me immediately up and at attention by my bed.

Shit, why is my dad yelling? This tone is reserved for the major fuck-ups.

Making my way toward the door, I don’t even bother to put on clothes. I exit in my boxers and am immediately met with the brick wall that is my dad.

We are about the same height and of similar build. Only, my dad has seen war, has the scars, and quite honestly, he scares the shit out of me.

“Turn around and put some clothes on. Then you get downstairs and face the shitstorm you’ve caused. Two minutes, or I’ll drag you down and let them see you in your naked glory. I don’t give a damn.”

He gives me a slight shove back into my room while my vision blurs and the chalky taste in my mouth makes me wish I had time to grab a glass of water. His instructions were clear and precise. I won’t press my luck with the Ranger.

Quickly tossing on my sweats and a T-shirt, I then rush downstairs. There is no way I’m going to be any longer than necessary, not with the mood he is in this morning. No, sir.

Halfway down the stairs, I stop in my tracks. The sight in front of me is like a punch to my hangover. I already want to puke my guts out.

My girlfriend Amber stands at the bottom of the staircase with tears in her eyes and her parents flanking her. The girl I have spent every spare moment with for the last few months doesn’t look like the lively, beautiful young woman I’m used to seeing. No, she looks a mess, hurt, broken, and … Could it possibly be she’s ashamed?

Her mother’s eyes are swollen from crying, and her father … his face is murderous.

What the hell is going on?

I shake my head, trying to sort out why they are here. Why my girlfriend looks like the world has crumbled at her feet. More so, why she’s brought this to my doorstep.

“Trevor,” my father barks harshly, making me jump while I complete my descent and hit the bottom step. “Ass. Couch. Now,” he commands before looking at Amber’s family. “Mr. and Mrs. Bridges, Amber, please head into the living room so we can address this matter.”

Matter? What could be wrong? I haven’t seen Amber in three days. She said she had the flu.

I sit while my mind races. We have been dating for six months. Three weeks ago, she finally gave it up at a party at her best friend, Kiki’s, house. Nothing has seemed out of the ordinary. We haven’t had much time together. I know I was drunk, she was drunk, so it wasn’t some romantic thing. In fact, once I got inside her tight pussy, I had to fight not to blow my load with the first thrust. I didn’t last long, but I told her next time would be better. I tried to make it good. I even held her afterward, knowing it was her first time.

“Trevor,” my mom says gently, and I look up into her dark eyes and see pain. “Amber’s family tells us that something occurred a couple of weeks ago,” she starts, only to be interrupted.

“You fucking piece of shit got my daughter drunk and raped her!” Mr. Bridges roars, lunging at me, but my dad, who easily towers a good six inches over the man, holds him back.

My mother rushes to my side, her long, black hair hitting me in the arm. She’s Native American, and I get my dark hair, dark eyes, and tanned skin from her. My height of six-feet-seven comes from my beast of a father.

“We need to discuss this,” my mother says to the Bridges.

“Nothing to discuss,” Mrs. Bridges replies. “Graduation is in two weeks; we want to see Trevor gone. Amber will have enough of a reminder for the next nine months of what’s happened to her. After the kids graduate, Trevor gets out of town for school or the military, or we go to the police and press charges.”

“Press charges?” I scream, running my hands through my hair as sharp pain assaults my head. “For what?”

“Rape!” Mr. Bridges yells back.

Tears hit me. I’m seventeen years old. One night at a party where I swear she said yes leaves me in this kind of mess.

“I didn’t,” I gasp, trying to get out the words. Then I make the mistake of looking into Amber’s eyes. The fear, the pain, the sadness, and the desolation are all written on her features as she shakes her head at me. “I didn’t do that.” I can’t even say the word.

My mother grips my arm in support. “Let’s sit down and talk this through.”

We back up and sit on the couch where my father releases Mr. Bridges then paces behind us. The Bridges take their seats on the loveseat and chair. Amber refuses to make eye contact any further with me.

“Were you at a party three weekends ago with Amber?” Mr. Bridges starts his interrogation.

I nod.

“Were you drinking?”

I nod.

“Do you understand that the legal drinking age in the United States is twenty-one?” he continues firing questions at me. “Do you understand that an intoxicated, underage girl is not of the right mind to give consent to sexual activities? Do you understand the pain you’ve caused our daughter? Do you understand the ramifications of your actions?”

“Sir—” I have to swallow the lump in my throat as I fight back emotions. “I understand the legal drinking age. I understand that, while yes, I was intoxicated, your daughter was an equal participant. So, no, sir, I do not understand the ramifications of my actions.” I fight back the urge to puke.

The man continues to fire question after question; some of them repeatedly, all of the accusatory. My mind races. Nine months …? Is she pregnant? We had sex one time.

It’s all a blur. I barely remember that night. How can this be happening? I need to pace. I need to puke. I need to get the hell out of here.

My father’s hand comes to the back of my head. “Since your mother and I failed to make a man out of you, the Army will,” he clips out. “Trevor will be signing enlistment papers today and will be gone within thirty days’ time.”

Mr. Bridges rises to extend his hand to my father to shake. “We appreciate your attention to the matter and easing the burden for Amber. We’ll be in touch about the future.”

Amber stands with her mother, never once looking at me as she exits.

Betrayal burns through me. How could she do this to me? To us? Did she care so little that she could honestly sit there and not fight for us at all? Meanwhile, I can’t help fearing what my future holds, my mind trying to grasp what they are saying.

I didn’t do it. I didn’t take advantage of her.

~~~

Two years later, I finish selection to become a Green Beret. The badass of the badasses. One of the elite. I remember, in the selection process, while trying to mentally survive from one obstacle to the next, someone said, “Hell is a fictional place. When you’re done here, it’ll seem like a fucking sanctuary.”

He was both right and wrong. Finishing selection was the most grueling thing I had ever done, but I had already seen hell.

Hell was your girlfriend saying you raped her when she turned up pregnant. Hell was getting a letter she lost the baby before summer was over. Hell was knowing her life went on while I couldn’t figure out if my memories of that night were teenage fantasies or reality.

Hell was living day in and day out, haunted by an event you aren’t sure really happened.

 

Chapter One

~Coal~

“Ropa vieja,” I order my shredded beef while Ice looks over his menu from beside me. Without having to watch him, I know what Ice is doing. He is scanning the restaurant, taking in the colorfully painted booths and the wood-stained tables while checking to make sure there is no threat. To men like us, it’s second nature to make sure your area is free of danger.

“Arroz con pollo,” he gives the waitress his chicken order.

With a nod, she takes off toward the back, weaving in and out of the tables, leaving me with one of the few people who I consider family sitting in front of me.

“It’s been three years, brother.” Ice meets my stare, not backing down. “Madyson is good. She’s working through it.”

I pause, then give it to him honestly, “You really think someone works through something like that?”

“Watching her, I know they do.”

His statement does nothing to ease my fears.

“You got a thing for my wife’s sister, Coal?” He asks the question everyone seems to wonder. “Look me in the eye and tell me. If you do, I’m not gonna judge. Not sayin’ I’ll be happy, either, but you need to buck up, Coal.”

“Fuck no. I’m old enough to be her damn dad.” I’m angry he even thinks this. “You know me better than that.”

“Then why, since the day we got her back, you’ve made it your mission to make sure she moves beyond this. Hell, Coal, you’ve paid for her college like she’s your own fucking kid.”

I glare at him. “No one is supposed to know that. As far as she goes, Morgan goes, or the damn Pope goes, you pay her way through school. Drop the subject.”

“Easier said than done, brother.” He raises an eyebrow at me.

“Got ghosts,” I reply as the waitress drops our plates off in front of us.

It’s all I’m going to give him. My personal life, my hell, is not his business. I have the means now to find Amber, though I don’t. I made a vow to my father the day I signed my enlistment papers to let the Army make a man out of me. I promised I would let Amber go and live her life free of me. Since the moment I took my oath, I haven’t looked into her, and I won’t. The baby is gone. There is nothing for me to talk to her about without bringing up what is one bad fucking memory.

When Madyson was found, I promised her I would be by her side to make sure she could move on in life. I made a vow to leave Amber alone, good or bad. I had to keep my word. I wouldn’t leave Madyson alone, though. No, I gave her my word to be her support.

And I have.

Ice raises his hands in surrender, knowing I’m done talking about Madyson. “For now, I don’t have to kick your ass.”

“Forever,” I clip back, meaning it. I do care about Madyson’s well-being, but not in the way he thinks.

Three years ago, Madyson was kidnapped, drugged, and raped by men who were operating a sex slave ring out of the Miami area. The Regulators had already taken notice of the number of women who had gone missing, but it became personal when Ice’s daughter, Brooke’s best friend, Madyson, became one of those missing women.

Our club went in undercover, starting a business relationship with the man we thought was running the ring. I had to do some despicable shit to prove the Regulators were genuinely interested, such as fuck two of their drugged-up whores. In the end, though, it had been worth it, because we got Madyson back.

Sometimes, you have to get your hands dirty to help other people. I have no problem doing that. I also have no problem with the black strokes each offense leaves on my soul. I am coming to realize there isn’t much of a soul left in me, anyway. The way I prove to myself that I actually am some sort of decent human being is by doing things like putting Madyson through school; giving one girl the chance that I had inadvertently taken from another so many years ago.

If I would have stopped to think all those years ago, things would be different. Instead, one night was the catalyst to my future. Madyson landing on my doorstep is my penance. My reminder of the damage that can be done. I take her burdens as my own because I couldn’t do it for Amber so long ago.

It’s one of those things I don’t need to explain to a single soul. It’s between me and whatever higher power I choose to believe in today.

With our meals in front of us, we eat and spend the rest of our time in companionable silence. Brett “Ice” Grady is one of my long-time friends. He’s also not one to press for words. Even if he did, he wouldn’t get them, not from me. My past is my own, and it’s not something anyone needs to know.

I left Trevor Blake behind the day I enlisted in the United States Army. My black heart is dark as coal, they say, and earned me my name in the Green Berets where I met Ice, Shooter, and Hammer. I kill without question. I sleep without dreams. And even after all these years later, I still wonder if no was yes, or somehow yes was no. It eats at me. It’s my penance to pay. I won’t bother her, though. I won’t dredge up the history for Amber. I let it be the gray area in life and determined that my future would be black and white forever. I no longer leave anything to chance or a misunderstanding.

The baby lost, a life gone. My mind used to wonder what happened to Amber? Did she move on? I still can’t wrap my brain around that night. Every time I go back there, I swear, in my memories, she wanted it as much as I did. She was drunk; we both were. It was wrong to push when she wasn’t sober. I learned from my mistakes. Since that night, I only fuck for release, and I pay for it. Every cent forked over, every fuck is a business transaction. There is no way I will allow myself to ever wonder again if I took something without consent.

I begin to lose my appetite just thinking about it.

I have killed, harmed, lied, and blackmailed. In fact, I have done everything an average person would consider awful. Even killed kids. I killed a seven-year-old with a bomb strapped to him. Some say it was for the greater good. My commander considered it following an order. “Don’t take it to heart,” he said. I didn’t take it to heart. I let it bleed out of my soul until there wasn’t a single ounce of a person left inside of me.

Numb.

Black.

Without feeling, without emotion, it’s who I have to be. And it all began on a night full of regrets and mistakes.

I slide the plate away. There is no way I can finish now. The thoughts are too much.

Mine and Ice’s phones ping at the same time. The text is from Screech, our tech man, a simple one-word statement.

Mission.

We have orders. Time to finish up here and meet everyone at the club to see exactly what Uncle Sam has in store for our undercover group next.

Regulators Motorcycle Club, a brotherhood of military men with a job that is a special skillset. One that walks the line between right and wrong. We are always one second away from going too far.

I have nothing to lose. I’m more than okay with it all. Some of the other men in our club, such as Ice and Hammer, however, have everything to lose—ol’ ladies, families. That’s not me. I have nothing to tie me down, and not one fucking thing to lose.

My father died ten years ago from a heart attack. Now my mom lives alone. I help her out when it comes to making sure her bills are paid, but I can’t make myself face her in person. I’m afraid all I will see is shame in her eyes from the things in my past.

As I walk out of the restaurant behind Ice, I see a familiar face. She goes by the street name Precious and is one of the whores I use when I need to get off. I don’t do many repeats, but Precious is one of the few I have gone to more than once because she’s always clean, pretty, and I know she has a kid she’s trying to support on her own.

Sauntering over to me, she purrs, “Hey, baby, haven’t seen you in a while. Want to go get a room?”

I shake my head. “Got somewhere to be, Precious. You hittin’ on me because you want my dick or because you need to pay a bill?”

When her eyes flash in humiliation, I know it’s the latter.

Pulling out my wallet, I take out a hundred-dollar bill and put it in her hand. “Take this, and I’ll see you when I can.” Then I walk away, not wanting to hear her thanks.

I’m not the sort of man anyone should thank for anything. Seeing her desperate like that makes me wonder about my mom. It makes me worry if she needs more money. She’s stubborn and doesn’t like to take the “handouts” I give her. Instead, she would rather earn it at the little garden shop she works at. I will have to have Screech hack into her bank account and check things out for me.

My parents may have believed that I was a disappointment of a son because of what happened. I was. Since the day I left to join the Army, I still remember all the lessons my father taught me. Taking care of your family was one of them.

Whether my mom likes it or not, I’m going to check in on her soon to make sure she’s got everything she needs. If that means paying her bills for her behind her back, then that’s what I will do. It’s worked for this many years. Each time, she calls and tells me not to, I end the phone call with the reminder I am a grown man and I will do as I please.

Throwing my leg over my bike, I start her up and rev the engine. Ice is already moving, so I head out after him.

I have no idea what the mission is yet, but I’m ready for it. I feel that familiar need to fight, get my hands bloody. I need to release some of the rage I hold inside twenty-four hours a day. I’m just hoping this mission gives me the chance to make someone the mangled mess I am inside.

 

~Paisley~

“Girl, you’re on fire!” I tell the air around me as I dance around my loft apartment, getting ready for my day. Self-talk, it’s working wonders. “Dance, Paisley, dance. No one is here to see.” I shake my bootie and swirl around the kitchen, making my morning smoothie. The space is open and airy, so I can twirl and shimmy my ass anywhere I please, from the living room to the kitchen. For now, I stay in the kitchen as I start to drink my smoothie and bounce my hips from side to side.

In the last few years, I have changed my routine to start my day with as much pep as I can conjure. When everything is taken from you in the blink of an eye, it’s hard to rebalance.

Within thirty minutes, I’m walking through the front doors of the gym for yoga. I have my earbuds in and my music up, jamming in my mind.

Looking down, I am stopped abruptly when I feel two firm hands grip my shoulders, stopping me just inches from his chest.

Scotty.

While the man has muscles on top of muscles, he’s an ego-maniac. I’m sure most women do swoon over him, but “man grunts” and flexing don’t do it for me.

“Paisley, baby, gotta be careful.”

“Sorry,” I mutter, knowing I need to pay attention. Scotty used to be just a regular at the gym. The more he transforms his body, the more it messes with his energy and his mind. He went from a casual, laid-back guy all of us felt fine around to a completely obnoxious jerk.

“Make it up to me. Take me to dinner tonight,” he commands in the way Scotty does.

I reach up and pat his pectoral muscle, to which he makes it jump in what I assume is a way to impress me. “Scotty, at least twice a week you tell me to take you to dinner.” I sigh. “It’s getting old, buddy. Women want to be whisked away, swept off their feet. Ya know”—I look up into his green eyes—“romance, buddy, romance.”

He cups my chin with his index finger and thumb. “Paisley, this ain’t no fairy tale. You can have a night or two with a man like me. Gotta take the leap, baby. It’ll be worth it, promise.”

I raise an eyebrow at him. “You really think that works?”

“You have no idea.” He smirks.

I have had enough.

Jerking my head back, I step to the side and around the behemoth. “Not happening, Scotty. Go have another protein shake,” I say without looking back at him.

I make my way toward the front entrance of the gym, passing a few isolated exercise rooms to the door that leads into the women’s locker room. Desirae, who is one of my closest friends, is already putting her stuff in a metal locker when I walk in.

We met when she came to Miami after the death of her sister. She still visits North Carolina regularly, but for the most part, her life is in South Beach with her man, Ethan “Hammer” McCoy. They are cute together in that “get a room,” face sucking way.

Des is easy-going and doesn’t judge a soul. It’s why we get along so well.

She takes one look at my face and asks, “Scotty again?”

“Yup. Des, is it really bad to think romance is dead?”

She laughs. “Honey, I live with a biker. Depends on your definition of romance.”

I sit on the bench rather than tuck my stuff away. “I want to be knocked on my butt. When cupid nails me with his arrow, I’m gonna be swept away. It’s not something I’ll find on a date; it’s something that’s going to spark and then go boom.” I raise my hands dramatically.

“You do realize it doesn’t necessarily work that way, right?”

“You and your logic. Okay, so for most people, it may not; but for me, that’s how it’ll be. The stars will align and something will happen, sending me barreling into the man of my dreams life, and instantly, there will be fireworks. I know it.”

She closes her locker before picking up my phone and towel to toss them inside the locker beside hers. “Fireworks, those can happen for a lot of reasons, Paisley.” She smiles as she takes me by the hand, pulling me from my perch on the bench. “I love you to death, but you are the craziest woman I know. Maybe a little meat in you would take the edge off?” she jokes, to which I just sigh loudly.

“Meat in me, huh? That’s gonna solve all my problems?”

We both laugh as we make our way to class.

Exiting through the other side of the women’s locker room, we walk through the heart of the gym that is filled with various exercise machines until we reach the yoga classroom in the back.

An hour session later, love, fireworks, romance, and all thoughts of my morning are gone. No, the meditation, the focus, the calm is all back in place. I’m balanced. Rejuvenated.

~~~

My shift at the grocery store begins on a register. Beep, beep, slide the cans with a smile; it’s my job. I count items or sing songs in my head to entertain myself as I ring up my customers.

“Paisley,” the produce manager calls my name, getting my attention.

“Yes, sir.”

“Flip your light. Finish that one, then you gotta work organic today. Paul called in.”

I nod and do as I’m told.

Bin by bin, I go through the vegetables and fruits, making sure to discard any that are going bad and refill those low on stock.

“Can you believe they want over a dollar more for this organic crap?” a lady says to her friend.

“Half of it still has dirt on it,” her friend chimes in.

I should probably mind my own business, but they are missing out on some good foods by their assumptions.

“While I can understand one’s aversion to the dirt, please understand that once rinsed in tap water, the metal and mineral components in all water speed the decomposition process; therefore, the food rots at a faster rate. Organic does cost more, because the rate in which a store loses the produce is higher since they aren’t packed full of preservatives, which settles in your gut and makes for a slow moving digestive system. And the dirt you visibly see is simple the covering provided in nature to slow oxidation and keep the air off the fruit or vegetable.” Immediately, I regret speaking.

I switched majors in college and finished with a degree in horticulture. Plant life, studying it, exploring it—well, it’s the only thing I could make sense of after facing the loss of real people’s lives.

“Thanks for the science lesson,” the woman cuts me off, and I draw back at her tone. My intention wasn’t to offend, but to explain.

Shrugging, I go back to work, deciding not to press my luck.

I made a decision five years ago to live a simplified life as much as I can and be conscious of my decisions for both my body and my environment. I lost everything by being careless, something I won’t do again. The regrets kept me up at night for far too long. I try to remain focused and centered in my every thought, word, and action now.

I even considered going off the grid, but I soon realized my fear of bugs and my height leave me at a strong disadvantage to making a go at it. Plus, living in South Beach, there isn’t really a whole lot of possibilities for that lifestyle.

Instead, I live in a one room loft-style apartment, drive a Prius, and eat a mostly natural diet. Like the women beside me, the life isn’t for everyone. Modern day conveniences come at a price to our bodies and environment, but it’s my choice, and I can’t push it on everyone.

They push their carts on by without buying anything organic, and I go about straightening up.

Not everyone can understand me. I don’t take it personally. The choices I make are for me and me alone.

It’s hard to keep it in perspective. Living a clean life allows me to not lose sight of the blessings I have. For me, keeping my diet away from processed foods isn’t about being skinny; it’s about not clogging my heart, pores, or mind with junk. Yoga balances both the mind and the body. It wasn’t until I immersed myself in this lifestyle that I found peace.

When my shift ends, I find my mood lacking. Sadness, an emotion I am once all too familiar with, encompasses me.

Depression.

I remind myself I won’t go there again. I have cleaned up my life. No demons haunt me anymore. Today was not the best day, but it wasn’t the worst, either.

I have dealt with the worst. Now I have my crystals, my diet, and my lifestyle to keep my energies refocused on the positives and not the darkness. I lost a lot, yes, but I haven’t lost it all.

I gather my things from the breakroom then make my way to my car. Distractedly, I pull out into traffic, trying to forget my past and stay in my current.

The alarm on my phone goes off, reminding me it’s time for a snack. Reaching over to my passenger seat cooler, I take out an apple. We eat for sustenance, not for hunger. By maintaining a healthy glucose, I don’t feel the hunger pains.

I keep my body and mind on a regimented schedule. My mind can’t become distracted, and my emotions won’t run in a panic if I continually eat in small portions. Again, it’s about control for me.

The light ahead turns red, and I take my foot off the gas and press down on the brake.

Lifting the green fruit to my mouth, I bite, tasting the bitterness of the Granny Smith apple hit my taste buds. I close my eyes briefly in appreciation.

That’s when the bump happens.

Throwing the apple over my shoulder, I look up to see a huge man on a motorcycle look over his shoulder at me after my bumper has clearly pushed into his rear tire.

Oh heavens, what have I done?

He pushes the kickstand down as I throw the car in park, slap on my hazard lights, and open my door.

“Oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry,” I say, rushing toward him.

His dark eyes stare right through me as I look at him.

Before me stands a stunningly tall, bald man whose aura screams sex in a dark way. He has one of those seriously killer beards that you sort of want to pet because it’s so fabulous. It accentuates his strong face and tanned skin. His long legs are covered in jeans that hug his tree trunk thighs, and his feet are clad in some serious-looking ass-kicking boots. A black shirt covers his chest underneath his leather vest with patches all over it. The whole visual strikes me as an intimidating figure.

“Coal” sits on the left side of his vest, over his heart. “Vice President” lays opposite the name on his right side. The rest of his vest has a bunch of different patches with different cities and sayings. Is this a biker in the same club as Desirae’s man?

He shakes his head. “You okay?”

“Yes, I am, but are you?”

He nods. “I’m fine. Get in your car, pay attention, and go home,” he dismisses me. “Don’t just stand there, looking stupefied. Get in the car and go home. It’s done.”

“I need to make this right,” I stammer as my mind spins. I feel like things are suddenly out of control. I am not one to panic. Normally, I would tell myself to breathe through it. Only, I sense a brokenness in this man I have never felt before.

Clutching my chest, it feels like there is a knife straight in my heart. Our energies link in a way I didn’t think would be possible.

“Nothing wrong, so nothing to make right.” He studies me as cars rush past us. “Get in your car. Can’t leave till I know you got back in the vehicle.”

“Don’t you need my information? I have insurance,” I mutter, feeling like my world is off-balance.

“It was a bump.” He doesn’t hide his frustration. “Not a patient man, Pixie, so get in your pedal car and go on.”

Pixie? I want to ask, but I don’t. The man is clearly not wanting to do anything about our incident. Therefore, doing the only thing I can think of, I get back in my Prius, turning off the hazards and putting it in gear.

I try to shake off my emotions. Anxiety, guilt, frustration, and sadness all toy with my carefully balanced core. I feel myself tipping, falling, and stumbling down into the darkness. I feel stuck to this man, like our worlds have aligned for a higher reason. Fate, destiny, the Mother Earth, or God—something has us linked, and I don’t know how to explain it to him or myself.

Instead, I do what every respectable twenty-six-year-old woman does when she is faced with a scarier than a horror movie biker, I follow him.