While you wait for the next book in the River Reapers MC series, here’s a special treat. This spooky short story can be read as a standalone whether you’re new to the MC or a longtime member (trigger- and spoiler-free)!
Before You Read…
Guess everyone’s costumes! Just save the image, then draw to match each character to a costume. Then tag me on Instagram with your guesses!
“We’re throwing a Halloween party, and Olivia’s organizing,” Ravage, the President of the River Reapers MC says, casting me the quickest of glances. “We’ve also got a bit of a rat problem—”
“Back up a sec.” He’s not getting off that easy. It’s bad enough I have to clean up after their drunk asses as their bartender. It’s bad enough they pranked the shit out of me as their Prospect. These pains in my ass want me to plan their Halloween bash? The one that requires tickets, because so many people come, from all over?
“It’s not a big deal.” Ravage leans back in his chair at the head of the table, stretching lazily like he didn’t just hand me his baby.
This is the party. He and Shannon host a haunted house at their place every year, with music, food, and booze back at The Wet Mermaid, the MC’s strip club. It goes well into two in the morning, sometimes later, depending on how the police department feels about us at the time. All the proceeds from the ticket sales and raffles go to Shannon’s Haven, a shelter for survivors of rape and domestic violence. This is the fundraiser that sponsors everything Shannon does for another year. And Ravage is just giving it to me?
I’m one of Shannon’s strays, in a way. I washed up here every time my mother Bree disappeared, because before DCF got their hands on me, I belonged to the club. They were my family. Because of Ravage’s record, they weren’t allowed to foster or adopt me, so I was ripped from their leather-clad arms and placed with even worse people. As soon as I turned eighteen, I came back to the Mermaid for a job, and I’ve been family again ever since.
Now I’m one of the River Reapers, for real. Me—the little girl without a family. Now I’ve got more family than I can handle. Just like a standard suburban family, they drive me crazy.
I’d do anything for them, anyway.
“Is this one of those things where you surprise me with a little responsibility now because later you’re gonna drop the whole thing in my lap?” I slide a smirk over to Cliff. He knows exactly what I’m talking about, even if neither of us knows exactly where our complicated relationship stands.
“Sure seems like it,” Cliff agrees.
That’s just how Ravage rolls. He has his secret, all-knowing, father-knows-best agenda, and nine times out of ten, the fucker’s right. That’s what makes it infuriating. He knows what the ten of us sitting with him at this table are capable of before we even do. I always think he’s insane, and he always proves me wrong. Like the time he taught seven-year-old me how to shoot a gun. Way fucked up, but it saved my life later.
I know he loves me like I was his own daughter, but sometimes it’s so creepy, the way he just knows things. I bet the fucker even knows when he’s gonna die, and everything he’s doing is just to prepare us for that day.
Which is why I narrow my eyes at him.
“You love Halloween, and there’s no way Shannon just agreed to put all of her funding in my hands.”
“Actually, it was her idea.” His ice blue eyes are firm. “She wants to go away for a few days, and I want you to run everything so smoothly, she doesn’t feel guilty.”
In that case, I can do this. Shannon’s been like a mother to me over the years, in ways I never even realized. The least I can do is take over so she can take a break.
“Then I only have one question,” I say, lifting my chin.
“Can we still do the haunted house at your place?”
I stretch fake spider webbing across the front bushes, my memories as real as the October chill in the air. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed around the club. My mother made sure that I was kept in the dark. Halloween was the only exception, and that was only because Bastard took me to the haunted house and straight back home. I gotta give Ruth props, because I had no fucking clue my old man was the President of a biker club. He came home for dinner every night just like all my friends’ dads. Until I found Ruth in the tub, I had no idea we weren’t like every other family.
A lot of the time, I’m angry. I try to hide it, but it comes out anyway. I’m Frankenstein, a big dumb brute barely holding it together.
I stick the little plastic spiders into place, envisioning the yard lit up by strobe lights like it used to be. This is the house that goes overboard every year, the house everyone wants to see. Shannon’s decor is already dreamy boho goth, so all it needs on the inside is a few fake spiderwebs and some mood music. Halloween is when it’s cool to show off the animal skulls she collects.
Olivia pokes her head out the front door. “You almost done with that? I’ve got another job for you.”
She steps onto the porch and I join her, wrapping an arm around her to keep away the chill. For a brief moment, her warmth seeps into me, and I close my eyes. Peace is so fleeting for us. Even before we met, our lives were a mess of chaos and hurt. She’s the home I’ve been aching for, but she has yet to invite me in. Not all the way, anyway. After all she’s been through, she guards her heart, and I can’t blame her. It’s my job to prove to her that she can trust me, time after time.
“What do you need?” I kiss the top of her head, breathing her in. Just her nearness sets my senses on fire, my hands longing to touch her.
But she pulls away, stopping me with a serious face. “I need you to get our costumes.”
I blink. “Costumes?”
“We’re the hosts. We have to dress up.”
“I’d rather get us undressed.” I settle my hands on her hips, drawing her back in.
“Yeah well, no one’s getting any ’til I’ve outdone every party Ravage and Shannon have ever thrown.”
“Tall order.” I stroke her cheek. “You’re doing great, you know.”
“I’ll do even better if you get us some cool matching costumes.”
I chuckle. “The day before Halloween? No problem.”
“That’s the spirit.” She unties her nest of curls and shakes them out, wafting the warm, slightly spicy scent of her shampoo my way.
“Anything I should avoid?”
She drops her hair, smirking. “Hmm. No bikers.”
I laugh. “Can’t make it easy for me, huh?”
“Is that even a costume?”
“Definitely no rockstars.”
I sober. She’s listing all the real-life monsters we’ve buried. “Probably no football players, then.”
“Definitely not. I’ll wear anything else. I’ll even go as a half-naked maid.”
“You promise?” I’m not usually a fantasy guy, but the thought of Olivia half naked in any form gets me instantly hard.
She gives my ass a swat. “Only if you go get those costumes.”
“I’m on it.”
Before I go, I pull her in for a kiss. I don’t give a fuck how much a hurry she’s in. Every moment could be our last. Too many people want us dead. There’s always time for kisses.
“Be safe,” she murmurs just as our lips touch. I nuzzle across hers, savoring the slow sweet burn. Darting my tongue against her lower lip, I tease her open. The inside of her mouth is hot and sweet, and the glide of our tongues is too quick. I capture her face in my hands for just a moment longer, feel her body slow and melt into me, tell her I love her with my tongue instead of the words she won’t let me speak.
Then, just as she surrenders, I break away with a wink.
“No one’s getting lucky ’til I get costumes,” I remind her. Her eyes flash, her face so comically disappointed, I chuckle. I kiss her hand, then hop off the porch. Just before I turn the engine of my motorcycle, I hear her mutter a single word.
Every single store is sold out of costumes. I knew it’d be slim pickings, but they’re all cleaned out. There’s no time to order anything, either, so I’m screwed. I might as well not even go back to the house, not empty-handed.
There’s only one person who might be able to help me with this. Before I can call her, my phone buzzes with an incoming text.
<< Ravage: Don’t forget to take care of our rat problem. >>
Fuck. I tip my head back. I didn’t forget—no way I could. I just wish I didn’t have to be the one to handle it.
<< Ravage: I mean it. There’s a rat in the clubhouse and I’m counting on you to get rid of him, son. This could earn you a new patch. >>
This is exactly “one of those things” Olivia was talking about in Church. Sometimes Ravage drops little jobs on us, all while making this face like he knows something the rest of us don’t. He’s never had me do anything like this, though.
But he left this to me, right after putting Olivia on party duty, and if I want to stay in this club, I better make it happen. It’ll never leave the table. It won’t violate my parole. It shouldn’t bother me. But it’s brutal and cold, and despite the time I did in max, it’s not my style.
<< Ravage: Take care of it before the party tomorrow night. >>
Every kill is a stain on my soul, a soul I wasn’t even sure I possessed until I met Olivia. When I stood outside that motel and she offered me a cigarette, she lit up the parts of me that were dark for two decades, maybe longer. I want to give her a good, clean life, but there’s no such thing in this life we lead.
If nothing else, I can at least give her a costume.
I call my cousin Lucy. I’m ten years older than her but she’s the one always saving my ass. She picks up right away.
“You must be psychic,” she says, breathless.
My pitch for last-minute help dies on my lips. “Huh?”
“I need you to get over here, right now.”
I don’t think. I don’t ask questions. I just go.
I fall back onto Shannon’s chaise lounge, enveloped by the emerald velvet and pile of throw pillows. The house is decorated, her cats are fed, and everything at Shannon’s Haven is running right on schedule. Tomorrow there’ll be late-afternoon trick-or-treating for the kids, then the haunted house will kick off the party over at the Mermaid.
Esther tosses the last goody bag into the box and stretches out on the floor. “You did it, girl.”
“Thanks to you.” No way I could’ve put together two dozen goody bags and care packages, while decorating and making sure the menu’s all set. Not by myself. I’m never alone, though, not with Esther. She comes with an army of little sisters eager to help, because even teenagers love free candy.
“Any time. I’m really excited about this party. I always heard about it, but thought it’d be all bad stuff, like drugs and violence.”
“That’s the afterparty,” I say, kidding. Biker family parties are just like any other family gathering. There’s booze and weed, of course, but no one would even think of lighting up in front of the little ones. The liquor is kept out of reach and the party stays family-friendly ’til the babies are all in bed.
I missed a lot of Halloweens after I went into the system, but I remember slow dancing on a slightly drunk Beer Can’s feet, eating plates of food made by Mark’s flavor of the week, and going home with my own care package for Bree. In each box, there’s a new set of clothes for each mother and child, plus all the fixings for a spaghetti night, and some necessities like deodorant and toothpaste. This year, I had Esther add one more thing: a fall wreath made by her little sisters. Bree and I never had decorations. I figure the wreaths will brighten up everyone’s doors, even if only a little.
Esther’s fourteen-year-old sister, Cierra, unplugs the hot glue gun she’s been in charge of for the past few hours. “Can we go to the movies now?”
“You good here?” Esther asks me.
I nod, too tired to speak.
“All right, we’re out, then.” She collects Cierra, Abril, and little Ximena, and then the house is silent.
The quiet hits me hard. Somewhere, a grandfather clock ticks, but other than that, there isn’t a sound. With Esther and the girls gone and nothing left to do, I’m trapped by all of my insecurities. Esther says Shannon would be proud, but I can’t help but feel like I’ll never measure up. Shannon gives without even a second thought. She makes so many lives better, never once complaining. I don’t know how she does it without collapsing. If anyone deserves a to get away, it’s her. I picture her and Ravage strolling down the Maine beach, and smile.
My smile drops when I think of the way Ravage looked at me. He had that gleam in his eye, that calculating one that tells me someday I’ll be running Shannon’s Haven, whether I think I’ve got it in me or not. His faith in me scares me more than anything else, because I can’t bear the thought of letting down the two people who’ve looked out for me my whole life every time Bree couldn’t. Shannon gave me a job as a bartender when I wasn’t even old enough to drink or confident enough to hold a man’s stare. She taught me how to be boldly me, just by showing me how to mix drinks I’d never heard of and banter with customers I’d never met.
Ravage is always saying things like “This club is your birthright,” because Cliff and I are second generation; we were supposed to be River Reapers but then we got taken away by two sides of the same system. I owe Ravage and Shannon everything, but I’ve always had my own plans, and I don’t know how those fit into who they want me to be.
After coming up in the system, I swore I’d become the kind of social worker I needed as a kid. I can’t take care of my clients and run Shannon’s Haven at the same time. If that’s truly what Ravage wants, I’ll let someone down no matter which way I go.
I’m good at my job, even if I break the rules at times; I’m good at my job because I’m willing to bend them. The one time I asked for help, my social worker was too busy to do even the bare minimum for me. The system needs people like me, foster kid alumni who wanna be the change or whatever. No one else cares enough.
But no one else cares enough about rape and domestic violence survivors, either. It’s the broken people who save other broken people. The problem is, I can’t save everyone, no matter how hard I try.
“It’s me,” Cliff calls as he steps inside.
I sit up, letting my worries fall away for a moment. Just hearing his voice eases the tension in me. Cliff is a constant reminder that I am enough. I know he loves me, even if it terrifies me to hear him say it. Hopefully he knows how I feel about him.
He bends to kiss me hello, and I rise onto my knees, stretching out the kiss. When he breaks away, I sigh happily.
“Did you get the costumes?” I ask, peeking at the big paper bag he holds in one hand.
It’s then that I notice the blood staining his hands and face.
“What happened?” I ask, standing.
In our world, there’s always blood. Every life we save is paid for with another life. Each monster we remove deserved it, but the lines in Cliff’s face tell the story of the toll it takes. It weighs heavier on his soul than it does mine. Looking at the stains on his skin, I know exactly why they called him Red Dog in prison. He’s a terrifying sight with his towering frame, broad shoulders, and dark hair, blood dried into his beard and under his fingernails. His name might be Clifford, and he might be a gentle giant with me, but he’s no docile puppy.
He glances down at his hands. “It’s not real,” he says quickly. “Lucy was doing this Halloween photo shoot with Bunny and it got out of hand.”
I sag back into the chaise, relieved. There’ll be no bodies to bury tonight. He sits beside me, pulling up a video. I watch my adoptive sister scrub her baby, covered in fake blood, in the sink. “I swear I didn’t mean to Carrie prom my baby,” she says in the video, and I snort softly.
“Lucy and Pinterest fail, in the same sentence? My eyes must be lying.” I fight another wave of yawns. “Please tell me you got costumes,” I murmur.
“I did,” he says, “but you’re not gonna like them.”
Cracking an eye open, I take in what he’s holding up. He’s right.
To be continued…
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