GET THE PREQUEL: FREEING SULLY
CALLAHAN “COWBOY” WHISKEY took off his Stetson and dragged his forearm across his brow, squinting against the late-afternoon sun as he looked out over the property that had been in his family for generations. His heart had always belonged to Redemption Ranch, where they rescued horses and people, giving ex-cons, recovering addicts, and other lost souls a second chance. The ranch had live-in facilities and a full therapeutic staff run by Cowboy’s mother, a licensed psychologist. His father managed the ranch, and Cowboy and three of his siblings worked and lived on the property. Cowboy was as deeply rooted to that land as he was to his family and to the Dark Knights motorcycle club. His father had founded the local chapter of the Dark Knights well before he and his four siblings were born, and giving back to the community had been a part of their lives for as long as he could remember.
Today the ranch was bustling with activities for the kickoff of the Ride Clean anti-drug campaign run by the Dark Knights. Every fall the club kicked off the event with a motorcycle ride and rally, followed by a day of fun and fundraising at the ranch. Families came from several neighboring towns to take part in the festivities. Kids learned about caring for horses and enjoyed yard games, paintball, horse and pony rides, and hayrides. This afternoon Cowboy was overseeing horseback rides in the lower corral with Simone Davidson. Simone had come to the ranch almost two years ago, after completing rehab. She’d thrived in their program and had remained on as an employee while taking classes toward becoming a substance abuse counselor.
Three giggling kids ran past as Cowboy’s cell phone rang with his father’s ringtone. He put his hat back on and stepped away from the corral to answer it. “Yeah?”
“Gather the Knights. Emergency meeting in the main house.” His father’s gruff tone left no room for questions. When they were at events, alerts were passed personally rather than having forty phones going off with texts at the same time.
“Yes, sir.” Cowboy pocketed his phone, wondering what the hell was going on, and headed for Simone.
“Uh-oh, the big man doesn’t look happy.” Simone’s thick auburn hair framed her pretty face and bright smile. With her arms covered by her flannel shirt, the only visible reminder of all she’d been through was the scar running down the left side of her face. “If it takes all day, I’m going to get a smile out of you.”
Not likely. Especially now. “I need you to take over. My old man needs help with something.” They had a hard-and-fast rule that club business went no farther than club members. For their families’ protection, even wives weren’t privy to club business.
Simone’s smile faded at his tone. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll send someone over to help you. I’m taking Sunshine.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to let her name wear off on you a little,” she called after him as he mounted the sweet-tempered palomino they’d rescued a few years back.
He waved as he rode off, scanning the crowds for black leather vests with Dark Knights patches on the back, like the one he wore. All the club members and their families were helping run the event, but they had plenty of volunteers to cover things while they were called away.
Cowboy rode by the barns and riding rings, discreetly alerting members to the meeting. In turn, each man went on to notify other members. They were well versed in discretion. They had to be. Too many Dark Knights walking purposefully in one direction would attract attention. Instead, they acted jovially, sauntering up to each other and clapping their buddies on their backs, like two guys just shooting the shit, and then they took separate routes toward the main house, careful not to stick too close together.
As Cowboy made his way around the grounds, he spotted his younger brother, Dare, running the pony rides and felt a familiar gust of gratitude, as he often did these days when he saw him. Dare had been a daredevil since he was a kid, and Cowboy was forever trying to rein him in. A couple of months ago, a horrendous accident had damn near killed Dare and his fiancée, Billie Mancini. It was the most terrifying thing Cowboy had ever experienced, and it had shaken Dare up enough to make him start changing his daredevil ways. That didn’t mean he’d stopped doing crazy shit. It just meant he’d do a little less crazy shit.
Dare lifted four-year-old Gus Moore off a pony and carried him over to his father, Ezra. Dare and Ezra were both Dark Knights and therapists at the ranch. As Cowboy rode over to them, he spotted his sister Sasha, an equine rehabilitation therapist, heading their way.
Ezra looked up, and Sasha pushed her long blond hair over her shoulder, flashing a flirtatious smile. What the hell, Sasha? They had rules against intercompany dating, and she knew better than to flirt with a fellow employee. Especially Ezra. He had enough trouble with his ex, so much so that he wasn’t interested in getting mixed up with another woman. Thankfully, Ezra broke their connection, as Cowboy had thought he would. He made a mental note to have a talk with his sister and nip that in the bud before it had a chance to cause any trouble.
“Hey, Cowboy!” Gus waved excitedly, his mop of dark curls bouncing around his face as he wiggled in Ezra’s arms. “I rode a horse, too!”
“That’s great, buddy,” Cowboy said.
Gus began talking a mile a minute, and Cowboy gave Sasha an imploring look and a curt nod. Having grown up around the club, she was used to their impromptu need for private discussions, and she’d honed her ability to read their silent cues.
She reached for Gus. “Hey, Gusto, how about we play in the bouncy house and then get one of Birdie’s yummy chocolate pony pops?” Their quirky youngest sister, Birdie, was the co-owner of a chocolate shop in a neighboring town, and she was at the event selling chocolates to raise money for the club’s drug-free campaign.
“Yeah! Bye, Dad. I’m going with Sugar!” Gus had a major crush on Sasha, and he’d picked up on Dare’s casual use of the endearment sugar when speaking to female friends.
The guys chuckled as Sasha carried Gus away, but the amusement was short-lived. They swiftly turned their attention to Cowboy.
Cowboy was acutely aware of the families milling around them and was careful not to alarm anyone. “Our old man needs help carrying some stuff from the main house. I’m on my way to grab Doc and the guys from the paintball field.” Doc was their oldest brother and the ranch’s veterinarian.
“I’ll let Mom know we’re going to help,” Dare said casually. Their mother would alert the other club members’ wives and girlfriends and make sure no attention was brought to the club gathering.
Ten minutes later Cowboy stood among the Dark Knights brotherhood in their largest meeting room in the main house. All eyes were on his father, who stood at the front of the room. Tommy “Tiny” Whiskey was a mountainous man at six foot four and three hundred pounds. He had a pendulous belly, long gray hair, and a bushy gray beard, and he wore a black-and-gold bandanna—the colors of the Dark Knights—tied around his forehead, along with his leather vest boasting club patches, which he was rarely seen without. Tiny didn’t put on airs for anyone, and he was the toughest and the fairest man Cowboy knew. He was a strong leader, and he was well respected by every man in that room and damn near every resident three towns out for his groundbreaking efforts to help others. He was also as fearless and ferocious as a grizzly and one of the most lethal weapons the club had.
“We’ve got a situation,” Tiny said sternly. “A young gal escaped from a cult in West Virginia and was picked up by a trucker who was heading this way. They need a safe haven for her while DNA tests are run and they figure out what’s what. Her name is Sullivan Tate, and she goes by the name Sully. She’s in her early twenties, and I hear she’s tough but scared. She’s refused to go to a doctor or to the police for fear of being taken back to the cult. We’re bringing her to the ranch tonight after dark, where she can undergo therapy and be seen by one of our doctors. This girl needs complete protection. Nobody can know she’s here until I get word that it’s safe. Not even your wives, or you could be putting our entire family, and everyone on this ranch, at risk. Hazard, this needs to be kept off the records.” Hector “Hazard” Martinez was a police officer. Like Cowboy, and most of the other men in that room, he went by his road name.
“You’ve got it,” Hazard said.
“Cowboy, you’re taking the lead on this,” his father said. “I want you to have eyes on her at all times. No exceptions. Hyde, you’re taking over Cowboy’s duties until we know she’s safe.”
“Yes, sir,” Hyde and Cowboy said in unison. Cowboy had no doubt about why he’d been chosen to watch over the girl. All the Dark Knights were protective, but he was known to be fiercely responsible, overprotective of everyone in his circle, and not easily distracted by a pretty face.
His father told them that the girl had been staying with the trucker and his wife for three weeks and had been too afraid to leave the house. He filled them in on what he knew about the Free Rebellion anti-establishment cult and their compound and said they supposedly had connections with dirty cops and other people of power, the bastards. “I alerted our other chapters to keep their ears to the ground about this, and it looks like the girl has a good reason to be scared. Biggs said the word on the streets is that the cult is searching for her.” The Dark Knights had several chapters across the United States with connections to informants in various seedy, underground operations, and Tiny’s brother Biggs ran the Peaceful Harbor, Maryland, chapter.
“The trucker who picked her up and his wife are going to a safe house, but I want eyes on their house from a distance, in case anyone connects the dots.” A few of the members volunteered to watch the house. “If you see anyone sniffing around, we need to know about it.” When they nodded their understanding, his father said, “When today’s event ends, take your families home, and then I need everyone to come back and stick around. We need extra security around the ranch for the foreseeable future. And remember, when you step out of this room, it’s business as usual.”
His father went over the plan to utilize decoy trucks when they picked up the girl and to form boundaries around the ranch that would be watched twenty-four-seven by club members in case the media got a whiff of her escape and where Sully was staying. Manny Mancini, Billie’s father and the vice president of the club, was putting together a schedule for security. His father’s serious eyes locked on Cowboy as he said, “Sully will be staying in cabin six.”
Strategically chosen, no doubt. That was the only cabin Cowboy could see from his own home. “What’re we telling the staff and residents about who she is and where she came from?”
“She’s here to heal,” his father said. “Nobody needs to know more than that.”
After the meeting, Cowboy walked out with his brothers, their cousin Rebel, Ezra, and their buddy Hyde.
“Damn, that poor girl.” Doc’s jaw clenched, and he shook his head. The pain in his eyes was palpable. He was the deep thinker of their family, and conversely, a charmer with the ladies when he chose to be. But his relationships were like an extended-stay motel, never lasting more than two or three months. “She’s got to be brave as hell to have escaped a fucking cult.”
“Brave and strong,” Dare agreed.
“That’s a hefty dose of perspective right there,” Ezra said, as if he needed any. He’d first come to the ranch years ago as a troubled teen. After completing one of their programs, he’d gone on to intern there while he was in college and graduate school, and now he was one of their therapists. He’d followed in his father’s footsteps and had become a Dark Knight. Like the other Dark Knights and the ranch employees, Ezra had become family.
“No shit,” Rebel agreed.
“Yeah, while we’re dicking around wondering what girl is going to land in our beds tonight, that poor girl’s scared for her life.” Hyde had come to the ranch a few years ago as a belligerent ex-con and went through the program with Dare as his therapist. He’d since become one hell of a ranch hand and a trusted friend.
“Kind of like any girl who ends up in your bed,” Rebel teased as they pushed through the doors and walked outside, doing as they were told: going back to business as usual.
The guys chuckled, but those sounds were heavier, weighed down by their new reality as they shifted gears from club business to upbeat campaign hosts.
Something had bothered Cowboy during the meeting, and he didn’t shift gears quite as easily. As the guys shot the shit and began to go their separate ways, he pulled out his wallet and withdrew the missing-person flyer they’d been given at a club meeting a couple of months ago. Cassandra “Casey” Lawler had been missing for more than twenty years. She and her parents had been on their way to pick up her older sister from a camp in West Virginia when their car hit a tree. Authorities found her parents dead, and Casey had been missing ever since. Her sister had hired a private investigator over the summer to look into the case, and the little girl’s picture had been all over social media ever since.
Cowboy studied the image of the blue-eyed four-year-old who had burrowed beneath his skin the first time he’d seen the flyer. She wore a flannel shirt, leggings with dirt stains on the knees, and little construction-style brown work boots. Her golden-brown hair was tangled and frizzy, like she’d been running around all day. He’d never seen a four-year-old with an edge, but those baby blues with impossibly long, dark lashes said, Watch out, world, here I come. He studied the age-progression picture of a young woman with those same bright, tough eyes and felt the clutch in his chest he’d gotten every damn time he looked at the flyer.
“Dare, where are you heading?” Doc asked, drawing Cowboy’s attention away from the image.
“To the one person who can put a smile on my face.” Dare nodded in the direction of Billie, who was talking with Birdie by the table where she was selling chocolate. He glanced at Cowboy. “Dude, you okay?”
No, I’m not fucking okay. Cowboy nodded.
“Better get that look off your face, or you’ll scare off the women around here,” Doc teased. They were always giving him shit for being too serious.
“Right.” Cowboy rolled his shoulders back, cleared his throat, and stroked his beard, forcing a smile. “Better?”
Dare grinned. “Now you just look like you’ve got a wedgie.”
“Maybe I do,” Cowboy said with a laugh. “Asshole.”
“You know you love me.” Dare headed for Billie.
Cowboy looked at the flyer again, his gut fisting.
“You’ve been studying that thing for weeks,” Doc pointed out.
He met his brother’s serious gaze. “I can’t shake the feeling that she’s out there somewhere. She went missing in West Virginia, and that girl Sully escaped from a cult in the same state. What are the chances they’re the same person?”
Doc’s brows knitted. “Dude, that little girl’s been gone for more than two decades. Chances are she’s no longer breathing.”
Cowboy gritted his teeth against the visceral and surprising anger rising inside him. “If Sasha or Birdie went missing, I’d never give up hope.”
“If she were our sister, I wouldn’t either,” Doc said sternly.
“She’s someone’s sister, and they’re looking for her.”
Doc lifted his chin. “Why’re you so pissed?”
“I don’t fucking know.” Every time he looked at this flyer, it ate away at him like nothing ever had. “Sorry, man. I just…”
“Look, I know you’re worried about that girl and the sister who’s looking for her, but sometimes when someone’s gone, they’re just gone.”
Cowboy couldn’t swallow that jagged pill, but he held his tongue because, years ago, Doc had fallen for a politician’s daughter who had interned at the ranch over the summer, and it hadn’t ended well. Cowboy knew Doc’s follow-up texts and calls had gone unanswered, and he didn’t want to reopen that Pandora’s box. His brother hadn’t been the same since, and that was why they now had rules in place about not dating co-workers.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Time to pretend we’re not facing a ticking clock.” As Cowboy’s gaze swept over crowds of happy families and carefree kids, he wondered what kind of hell the girl heading their way had been through.
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