Marked

Chapter 1

Kate

 

Two years, ten months, and one week.

If I let myself, I could count it down to the exact number of days. Every once in a while, I couldn’t help it.

Even without having a bad day where I tortured myself by going over every minute, I knew we were past a thousand.

Over a thousand days since I lost my husband.

It was all I could think as I watched Daz sitting across from me.

Some days, I managed to just see him. Others, there was no ignoring that he was Joel’s brother. The two looked so alike. Same green eyes, same dark, always messy hair, same slight olive undertone to the skin that they didn’t know the source of. The biggest differences were that Daz had built up more bulk muscle than Joel ever did. And the dimple. My Joel had a dimple when he so much as smirked. Daz didn’t. Sometimes, at my darkest, I would tune out of conversations like this and just allow myself to imagine for a minute that Joel was still there with me. Not that I had any interest in Daz, just that it was easy enough to ignore the little differences between them and picture the man I loved.

The man I lost.

“Fuck, I could use a shot,” Daz muttered. He adjusted his cut—the leather vest he wore to signify that he was a member of the Savage Disciples Motorcycle Club. Then, his hands went to his hair, pushing it back and leaving the strands standing in a mess of directions. Watching it, I realized he’d been jittery since he sat down.

It was ten in the morning, but I didn’t bother pointing that out. For one thing, it wasn’t like he was actually trying to pour himself one. For another, even if he did, it wouldn’t be the most outlandish thing I’d seen him do.

Both of the Larson boys had always been wild, but Daz was more so and had been since I’d known him. Maybe it was that Joel and I had found each other so young and it had calmed him down. Maybe it went back even farther, to their early years when Joel took responsibility for caring for his little brother, while Daz didn’t have that burden. Whatever caused it, there was no denying the truth. That Daz grew up to join a motorcycle club only cemented it further.

The Savage Disciples MC, for all their emphasis on brotherhood, on family, were still a bunch of bikers, and they definitely fit the bill for “wild” when the situation called for it.

Though, even around the club, it was understood that Daz was the wildest. Which had made it quite the source of entertainment among his brothers when he’d been “tamed”—as much as he could be. Then again, the take-no-shit, red-haired with an attitude to match, former stripper that now owned the top bakery around, Avery, that did the “taming” could be pretty wild herself.

What Daz wasn’t usually was nervous. He had a penchant for blurting out whatever came to his mind without a thought, which was why his demeanor and hesitation to say whatever was on his mind since he showed up a few minutes ago was so odd.

“What’s going on?” I asked, feeling the tension rise in my own body. My life, and my son’s by extension, were still more dependent than I cared to admit on Daz, Avery, and the Savage Disciples as a whole. If something was wrong with the club, we were liable to feel it as much as anyone.

“Avery’s pregnant,” he blurted.

Oh.

That was good… wasn’t it?

Before I could decide if “Congratulations” was an appropriate response, or if this was a surprise he wasn’t prepared for, he went on.

“We were trying and shit.” He shook his head, the mess he’d left his hair in flattening out with the motion. “It’s just crazy that it’s actually fucking happening. She took a test a couple of days ago, then had an appointment and got it confirmed yesterday.”

I’d known Daz since he was a little punk of a thirteen-year-old, and this was the first time I felt like I couldn’t read him at all.

“Daz, honey, talk to me. What’s in your head?”

He looked up, his eyes—so identical to his brother’s that I usually avoided them—full of an ache I knew as well as anything, even as he smiled.

“I’m so fuckin’ happy, Katie,” he said low, and I managed to hold back the flinch when he used that name, but only just. “And it hurts like hell.”

I curled both hands into fists under the table so tight that even the short lengths of nails that I managed to maintain dug in to the point of pain. I understood where this was going now. If it wasn’t so apparent that he needed this, I’d shut it down. But I couldn’t do that anymore. If I did, I’d be back to the days when everyone was pressing me to “deal with my grief” and “move on”—two things I thought were a complete joke. You didn’t just let go of the fact that you lost the love of your life. It didn’t work like that.

So now, I had to put up a front and make it through conversations like this so they would all think I was coping.

“He was the first person I wanted to tell.” His voice rough, rasping out like every word hurt. If he still felt even a fraction of what I did, they probably did just that. “Even after all this time, the second I saw the plus on that fucking stick, I wanted to call him.”

The plus on that fucking stick.

I remembered those all too well.

 

“Tell me that plus means ‘A+, you’re fucking pregnant!’”

I wanted to look at him, but I couldn’t pull my eyes from the little screen. It was too much, seeing that, knowing what it meant. All I could do was nod.

Then, I wasn’t looking at the pregnancy test. I wasn’t looking at anything but a blur of motion as Joel wrapped his arms around me from behind and spun us in circles.

“Fuck yeah!”

“Stop it, you monster!” I shrieked through my laughter. “I’m pregnant. Don’t you know pregnant women get sick easily?”

In an instant, I was back on my feet, though I was spinning once again as Joel gripped my shoulders and turned me to face him. There was a huge smile on his face, the lone dimple in his left cheek on display. Despite the joy radiating from him, his eyes were intense.

“Say it again,” he demanded.

My own smile was big enough to make my cheeks burn, but it didn’t bother me at all. I reached up for his hand on my shoulder and brought it down to rest on my stomach.

 

“I’m pregnant.”

He kissed me, hard and deep, but quick. With a sudden, dull thud, he was on his knees in front of me. He yanked my shirt up to reveal the still flat surface beneath, the one that would be rounding out before long.

“I knew it wouldn’t take me long to knock your mommy up,” he boasted before whispering, “not that it was hard having her all over my dick.”

“Don’t talk to our baby like that, you asshole.” I shoved his shoulder, even though we grinned at each other like idiots.

His eyes dropped back down to my belly, where our baby was already growing, and a bit of awe snuck into his expression. “You aren’t even here yet,” he murmured, low and serious. “And you’re already so fucking lucky, just like me. Because we’ve got your mommy.”

 

I remembered choking back tears hearing Joel say that. I remembered the way he’d joked about framing the test, even when I reminded him that I’d peed on the thing and we’d have ultrasound pictures soon enough.

I remembered the test we’d bought the day we lost him, hoping we’d be giving Owen a little sibling.

“You still do that?” Daz asked, shaking me from the hold the memories had on me.

Did I still think to myself that I would tell Joel something later or reach for my phone to text him? Did I still want to share every minute of my day, every moment of Owen growing up, with him? Did I still feel the agony down to my soul when I realized I couldn’t?

Every. Fucking. Day.

“All the time,” I admitted, not bothering to keep the pain out of my voice.

It was freeing to be able to express that. I’d been keeping the reality of the grief that still haunted me day and night hidden for so long now. It was second nature to act. Maybe it was selfish, but knowing Daz still felt some of that misery, too, was a relief.

Daz nodded, eyes unfocused. Seeing the grief plain on his face made me snap out of it. Joel would hate for his brother to be anything less than thrilled at something like this.

He needs you.

There it was, that voice. Joel’s voice. The one that chimed in every so often, never letting me free of the memory of him, of wondering how he’d live through each moment he’d never get.

Still, whether it was my own subconscious, him somehow reaching me, or some otherworldly power, I knew it was right.

“He wanted to tell you right away, too,” I found myself saying. I wasn’t sure that was the way to help, but it was the first thing that came out.

Some of the sadness eased, mischief that was all too familiar on Daz’s face creeping back in. “If I remember that call right, it wasn’t right away.”

There was no missing the suggestion there. And he wasn’t wrong. Joel’s first order of business was to celebrate by carrying me to our bed and not letting me up until we’d both been wrung dry. After that—with me still lying there naked in bed as he did and him still letting it all hang out—he called his brother to share the news.

“It was a very close second,” I amended. And after that call was done, we went back to the first thing.

We fell quiet. That was what Joel was now, a silence that lapsed again and again wherever I was.

 

Sometimes, that bothered me as much as anything. Joel had been loud, bright, impossible to ignore. How was his legacy now this heavy silence?

I had a strong suspicion that was my doing.

“He’d be so excited,” I broke into the void, reaching out to grab his hand. “I know I am.”

The smile felt less forced than usual as it spread across my face. For all the pain it caused to keep Daz close, he was also my family. Maybe it wasn’t by birth, but it wasn’t just by marriage, either. Daz was my brother, I loved him, and I would love this baby, too, with whatever I had left in me.

 

 

 

“You can’t hide from me,” Daz yelled into the yard.

Concealed behind a bush a few yards away, Owen giggled.

My baby boy’s laughter was my favorite sound in the world.

There were times I’d worried losing his father might rob me of the sound, or that I wouldn’t shield him enough from my pain to let him grow up as happy as he should. Maybe he was too young to understand, maybe we’d managed to insulate him, or maybe it was just that unshakable Larson spirit, but not a bit of that brightness had dulled yet. I prayed I had it in me to assure it never would.

I sat on the porch of the farmhouse, our home for the last few years. It was owned by the club, a place for any of the members to live if they wanted. It wasn’t the center of things—that was the clubhouse closer to town. No, this house was all about peace and quiet, which was probably why the club’s president, Stone, stayed here along with his new wife, Evie. It was also where Doc, the club’s oldest member who used to live next door to Daz and Joel when we were all younger, lived. Daz and Avery spent some nights up here, some at her place.

I’d debated for a while about getting Owen and I a place of our own again, but it was hard to want to leave. Besides the fact that everyone here was like family now, the twenty acres the house sat on were gorgeous, lush, and gave Owen plenty of space to play.

It felt safe here. Not much had without Joel. It was easy to cling to the comfort of that.

“Gotcha!” Daz hollered, shaking me from my thoughts. Owen jumped up from his not-so-hidden spot, racing through the grass toward me.

“No! Mommy, save me!” he cried with that high laugh.

I stepped down into the yard, kneeling as he ran to me. As I watched, I wondered where my baby boy who could barely wobble across a room went. He hit me hard, throwing his arms around my neck as I lifted him up. A pang went through my chest as I wondered how much longer I’d be able to do this. Even now, I could feel the strain as I stood. Before long, he’d be too big for me to carry him anymore.

For now, none of that mattered, though.

Today, I could still carry him around. This morning, he still wanted me to.

Eventually, I knew I would have to let go, but I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

What would be left of me when that day came, I really didn’t know.