Throne of Scars by Autumn Jones Lake

ChapterOne

Grinder

When people have takenpleasure in watching you bleed, it changes you. Turns you into the savage you swore you'd never become. After a while, you’re not sure you’ll make it back to who you used to be. So if you find a woman who soothes your inner beast and defrosts your frozen soul, allowing them to slip away isn't an option.

Sometimes, running away to protect what you love most can be the bravest act. I understand that. Respect it, even.

Doesn’t mean I won’t search every corner of this Earth until I find my woman.

“I’ll drive.” Z follows me down the hallway.

“You’re not coming with me,” I grumble over my shoulder. “My life’s not a soap opera for your entertainment.” But fuck if it’s not starting to feel that way.

Z thunders down the stairs behind me. “Hey.” He taps my shoulder when we reach the packed clubhouse living room.

I spin around to confront him in a low voice. “What?”

“I’m not looking to be entertained, brother.” Z’s as solemn as I’ve ever seen him. No dimples in sight. “I just wanna make sure you’re okay. And that she’s all right.”

“Fine.” I blow out an annoyed breath. My gaze darts around the room again, confirming no one’s listening to us. “Don’t say anything to anyone, though. Please. I don’t need everyone knowing my business before I even know what’s up.”

“Promise.” He holds up one hand. “Won’t breathe a word to anyone until you’re ready.”

“Thank you.”

Outside, the crisp night air slaps me in the face. Bright light spills out of the garage. The gravel crunches under our boots as we cross the lot. I catch a figure banging around inside and move faster.

“Dex,” I call out.

“I thought you didn’t want anyone else to know?” Z mutters.

Ignoring Z, I hurry to meet Dex outside the garage door. “You busy?”

“Always, but what’s up?”

“You’ve been by Emily’s place, right?”

“A few times. Keeping an eye on things. Haven’t seen anything or anyone sneaking around.”

“You mind stopping by and asking if Serena’s there?”

Dex widens his eyes. “You actually want me to knock on her door and let her know the club’s been watching over her?” He continues with the incredulous stare. “How do you want me to explain that?”

“Don’t.”

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing. I can’t get a hold of Serena and I’m worried about her.” I try to dial down the agitation in my voice. “Z and I are gonna run by her place. Emily’s is like an hour in the opposite direction, so—”

“Yeah. Sure, brother. I got you.” He slaps my shoulder. “I’ll head out right now.”

“If she’s there, just ask her to call me and send me a text to let me know.”

“You got it.”

I give him a description of Serena’s car and the license plate. He squints but doesn’t question me further.

“Let’s go.” Z slaps my chest.

“Do that again and you’re going to pull back a bloody stump,” I warn.

“Easy, Grinder.”

I turn toward my truck but Z stops me. “I’ll drive. That way, I can take off if she’s there. Leave you two alone.”

“Super,” I grumble, sweeping my arm ahead of me in a lead-the-way gesture.

Z shakes his head, muttering under his breath about my grumpiness.

“You wanted to come with me,” I remind him. “Deal with it.”

There isn’t much to talk about as he drives us into Empire. At least there shouldn’t be. Z seems to have a different idea.

“Where’s your head at, G?” he asks.

“I want to make sure she’s okay.” My hands curl into fists in my lap. “Don’t want to get my hopes up,” I admit in a lower voice.

“What are you going to do…if she’s…you know?”

“Let her know I’m going to take care of her and our kid.” I snort and close my eyes for a second. “I already used some of that cash from Quill to order a fucking engagement ring after our meeting today.”

Z chuckles. “That’s some irony.”

“Yeah, I’m laughing my ass off over here.”

His hands tighten around the steering wheel and I move my gaze to his face. Jaw clenched, eyes staring straight ahead.

“I really wish we’d killed Shadow slower,” he says, voice tight with anger. “She wouldn’t be so fucking scared that she felt like she had to run if—”

“Had the same thought.” It stings that Serena doesn’t trust me or my club. But I can’t blame her, either.

A cloud of disapproval hangs in the cab as we venture farther into downtown Empire. Z steers his truck onto Serena’s small street and scowls.

“How can you let her live here?” he finally asks.

“I offered to move her into a nicer place. She wasn’t having it.”

He lines the truck up next to a smaller car and smoothly parallel parks it against the curb. “Life’s not as much fun without a good woman frustrating the fuck outta ya.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

His gaze scans the pavement in front of us. “Where does she usually park?”

“On the street.” I examine both sides of the road. “I don’t see her car.”

He opens his door and steps out, while slowly studying the area.

Irritated, I slide out of the truck and slam the door. “You don’t need to come up with me.” The last thing I need is Serena freaking out because I showed up with a brother. Even if it’s Z.

“I’m too invested in the outcome now.” He flashes his dimples and runs a hand through his hair. “If she’s here, I’ll go sit in the truck.”

Arguing with him is a waste of time. I head toward Serena’s building not bothering to check if Z’s following me.

“The fuck?” he grumbles as I wrench the front door open. “It’s not locked?”

“No.” I pull out my keys. The two of us sound like a herd of moose jogging up the stairs. If Serena’s home, she’ll hear us coming.

“You already have a key to her place?” Z asks.

“Yes,” I growl. “Any more questions?”

“Probably. Give me a second to think on it.”

“You do that, asshole.” I stop in front of Serena’s door and unlock the deadbolts.

“Well, at least she has good hardware.”

“First thing I did when I saw this place.”

“I should’ve guessed.” He laughs.

I push the door and it swings wide. Nothing greets us but the dark stillness of her quiet apartment.

Stale stuffiness hangs in the air, as if no one’s been here in a while. Makes sense. I’ve had Serena staying at the clubhouse since her attack. We only stopped by once briefly to pick up a few things.

I flick on the lights.

Hope bursts in my chest. Books scattered on the entertainment stand, throw pillows and blanket on the couch, even a couple pairs of her sneakers lined up by the front door. Everything appears as I remember from my last visit.

She hasn’t packed up and moved. There aren’t any boxes waiting to be filled. That’s good. Maybe she just needs a breather. A moment to absorb this life-altering news. Some space. As much as I hate it, I can give her that.

As I’m busy cataloging familiar items, Z stomps through the living room like he owns the place.

“Take your damn shoes off,” I call after him.

He returns to the front door with a raised eyebrow. “Seriously?”

One hard stare wipes the smile off his face, and he toes off his boots. “Happy now?”

My gaze drops to his feet and sticks. “Are those…mermaids on your socks?” I blink and stare at the colorful blue and green wool. The stress of this endless day must be making me hallucinate.

“Lilly bought them for me.” He rocks back on his heels and wiggles his toes. “I wasn’t exactly expecting to show them off tonight.”

“You went to a meet wearing mermaid socks?” For fuck’s sake, now I’ve seen everything.

“A Glock too.” He pulls the pistol from the holster at his side and points it toward my feet. “Keep making fun of my socks, fucker.”

“Where’d she even find something to fit those big-ass grizzly paws of yours?”

“I don’t ask questions. She and Trinity are always shopping for stuff together.” He presses his hand to his chest. “It’s not easy to find clothing to accommodate men of my size.”

“Jesus Christ, Wrath running around in mermaid socks too?”

“Nah.” Z lowers his hands into a V, framing his crotch. “I think Trin’s thing is gettin’ him fancy underwear.”

“I didn’t need to know that.”

“You asked.” He re-holsters his pistol. “We looking for something here or you got more wardrobe critiques?”

“I don’t know what we’re gonna find. Doesn’t look like she’s been here.”

Even so, I do a sweep of the apartment. I flick the light on in the first room.

“What’s this?” Z asks.

“Where she films her stuff.” I wave my hand in the air. “Those makeup videos.”

“Cute.” He moves closer to the long counter where Serena usually keeps her laptop and other equipment. “Something’s missing.”

“She brought her laptop up to the clubhouse.”

“Anything else?”

I shrug. “I couldn’t name half the equipment she uses if you put a gun to my head.” I yank my cell phone out, checking for any messages. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around this smartphone bullshit.”

His grim nod is almost worse than if he’d laughed.

I move on to her bedroom. Unfortunately, Z follows me. Can’t say I’m comfortable having him in my girl’s room. His gaze slides over her dresser to a small desk in the corner. He picks up a stack of envelopes and flips through them.

“Stop going through her shit,” I snap.

He fans the envelopes in front of him. “Searching for a clue about where she might’ve gone.”

“She’s not close to whatever family she’s got left.” I snatch the envelopes out of his hand and sort through them. Bills. Lots of ’em. My gaze lands on one from Union County Hospital.

“Yeah, saw that too,” Z says quietly.

I slip the piece of paper out of the envelope and unfold it. No details, just a balance that makes my eyes bug the fuck out. “How the hell does she plan to ever pay this off?”

He plucks it out of my hand but doesn’t seem as shocked at the number. “If it’s what I think it’s for, the club should be paying it anyway.” He folds the paper and tucks it into his pocket.

Since I agree the club should pay it, I don’t give him shit for stealing my girl’s mail.

He sifts through more papers on the desk. “Most of the important stuff she’ll have on her phone these days,” he mutters. His gaze lands on a corkboard over the desk with dozens of colorful squares of paper. Quotes ranging from cute to profound are scrawled in her neat handwriting over each one.

One corner of Z’s mouth lifts. “‘Never assume loud equals strength and quiet equals weakness.’” He nods. “I like that.”

My gaze lands on another one that freezes me in place.

The strongest souls carry the deepest scars.

“Let’s get going.” I nudge his side with my elbow. “Obviously, she’s not here.”

And I won’t be able to rest until I find her.