There was never a good day for a funeral. This was the second one Slater had attended in as many months, but at least at the first one Mother Nature had the decency to behave properly. It had rained all day, the kind of summer storm that sprang up out of nowhere and raged Biblically before vanishing to leave behind clear skies and sticky heat. That had been Rhonda Talbot’s funeral, family friend and his live-in housekeeper for the past three years. He remembered standing in the pelting rain, his good suit plastered to his skin, and thinking the old lady would have scolded him silly for getting his best shoes so muddy.
Now it was mid-September and Warren’s Mill was in the grip of an autumn heatwave. The trees around the cemetery swayed in a lazy breeze that tumbled burnt orange and fiery red leaves across the lush green grass. The sky was a pure, perfect shade of blue, scattered with fluffy white clouds, and it was so fucking wrong, in Slater’s mind, for the day to be this goddamned beautiful when they were burying Judge.
The whole of Wild Blood MC crowded around the casket, along with the club’s old ladies. It sat next to the hole it would go in, looking innocuous in the September sun, the pale wood gleaming. Roxy had laid a spray of purple flowers on top—irises and violets and shit he didn’t know the name of. Her wedding flowers, she’d said. While the men of the MC wore their cuts, proudly displaying the club name and their loyalty to the fallen VP, Roxy wore vivid purple in defiance of tradition. She clung to her daughter, Elena, staring at that casket with such deep, raw grief that Slater wanted to hustle her away from it.
That same grief was etched on the faces of all the men around him, from the President, Nash, down to the newest prospect. The heavy, crushing aura of loss and impotent anger tainted the bright, sunny day, and Slater was just fine with that. Judge had been shot, killed by a member of another MC. The bullet hadn’t been meant for him, but bullets didn’t discriminate and he was dead all the same, leaving behind a wife, a daughter, and his brothers.
Slater tuned out the priest’s eulogy, his gaze drifting to Wolf. He’d rode down from New Orleans yesterday to be here for the service, leaving his woman and kid behind. The woman and kid who’d led to Judge’s death.
Slater raked his hand through his hair, shaking his head. That was unfair, he knew. But it all led back to that, didn’t it? Wolf had run afoul of another MC, the Voodoo Kin, trying to win back his woman. Nash had sent Judge down to New Orleans to help straighten things out, and now Judge was dead. And Wolf and Nash wore their guilt like war wounds.
Slater wasn’t really sure he blamed either of them—or rather, he didn’t think he would once the sorrow passed. Judge had been a good man, a good VP. Nash wanted to wait until after the funeral to nominate a new VP, and Slater was hard pressed to think of anyone who could step up to the plate.
“…Out of a restless, care worn world, into a brighter day.” The priest finished his droning recital, sparking a fresh wave of sobbing from Elena.
Oh, fuck off, Slater thought, glowering at the priest. The squat little asshole had presided over Rhonda’s funeral too, and had told Slater afterward that he personally didn’t care for the poem they’d chosen to have read. Slater had wanted to punch him square in the throat. Hey, at your funeral, you can pick whatever you want, he’d said instead, conscious of his and Rhonda’s family nearby. Still, he hadn’t forgotten how angry the guy had made him, and he hoped Roxy and Elena weren’t going to get the same sanctimonious comments, because Roxy wouldn’t hesitate to jam her heels in his balls.
Dour music began playing, signaling the end of the service. Some of the other prospects looked uncertain of what to do now, exchanging glances with each other. Slater looked to Nash. The big man was bent over Roxy, whispering something in her ear as she hung onto to him like he was an anchor. She was nodding, tears trickling down her cheeks. When he was done, she took Elena by the hand and strode away, heading for one of the cars parked at the cemetery gates.
Nash straightened up and cast his eye over the club with a sigh.
“I don’t know about anybody else,” he said, voice rough. “But I could use a drink.”
That was the signal. People started peeling away, heading for their bikes.
Next to Slater, Punk rolled his shoulders and let out a sigh of relief.
“I could use several drinks,” he said. “Funerals are deeply depressing.”
“I think they’re meant to be,” Slater said. They moved off together, because they usually did everything together and today was no exception. Unlike Slater, Punk was a patched-in brother, not a prospect, but they’d known each other pretty much their whole lives and the rest of the club treated them like a package deal. “You know, something about mourning the dead, grieving the loss…”
“You think Judge would want his old lady there crying her eyes out? Or his kid?” Punk shook his head, locks of black hair sliding loose from the tail he’d tied it in. “I don’t.”
“Funerals aren’t for the dead,” Slater argued. “They’re for the living. Gives us a way to get it out of our systems, all the nasty feelings and questions.”
“Very philosophical. I think it’s gonna be a while before everyone’s nasty feelings clear up over this one.”
Slater gave him a curious look, but said nothing. As a prospect, there was plenty of club talk he wasn’t privy to that Punk was. Whatever Punk was alluding to, Slater probably wouldn’t find out until it had all blown over.
“C’mon,” Punk said, giving him a shove. “Let’s get back to the clubhouse. I want a cold beer and a warm woman.”
The cold beers went without saying at the converted mill that Wild Blood MC called home. The club girls hadn’t been part of the funeral, and they’d used the time to make sure the clubhouse was ready for the brothers when they returned. Bottles of beer, dripping with ice water, sat out on the bar. The mill was redolent with the scent of good soul food—Judge’s favorite. Buttermilk fried chicken spiked with cayenne and paprika. Jambalaya heavy with garlic and sausage. Slater even saw peach cobbler. It all looked mouth-watering. Roxy would be touched that the girls had gone to so much effort.
As for the girls themselves, well, yeah, they’d be warm enough. But he wasn’t looking to get laid today. And frankly, if he had been, none of the club girls would have called to him. They were all nice enough—good lookers, willing, fun—but he’d grown out of casual sex since becoming a prospect. He was too jealous, Punk always told him. Too possessive and too demanding. Slater didn’t think that was true. He just liked things to be straightforward, and casual sex with girls who were vying for the attention of the rest of the club didn’t feel straightforward.
Punk had no such reservations. He peeled away from Slater as they entered, making a beeline for Taylor, one of the newest girls. She was a classic blonde bombshell, the kind of curvy, giggly girl Punk always found irresistible. A safe bet, a woman like that. The only kind of safe bet Punk ever made.
Like a good prospect, Slater took up position behind the bar, serving drinks to the fully-patched in brothers who drifted his way. Nobody had asked him to do it, but he always made a point of not waiting to be asked. He’d come to the MC later than most and at his age, he was long past the point where he accepted being ordered around by anyone. So he acted before the orders came, when he could.
He poured himself a bourbon on the rocks and scanned the clubhouse. Roxy and Elena were nowhere to be seen, but Nash sat on one of the couches by the pool tables, next to Rattler, Wild Blood’s Sergeant at Arms. The two men looked deep in earnest conversation, Rattler nodding as Nash gestured. They tended to rub each other up the wrong way most of the time. Rattler was part of the old guard, from before Nash had joined the club and become President. Wild Blood had a rough past, and Nash had cleaned it up. Rattler didn’t particularly approve, from what Slater gathered. The sight of them talking so intimately put him on high alert.
Rattler would make a decent VP. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Congeniality, but Nash needed someone who would push back against him from time-to-time. Slater made a mental note to ask Punk if he had any money on Rattler.
Brothers and women drifted to and from the bar, and Slater served them all on auto-pilot, feeling numb at the core and wishing he could leave. Funerals, after a point, all became the same, and the public mourning made him uncomfortable. It felt … showy, after a while, like everyone was competing to be the most mournful.
The sound of a bottle slamming on the counter jerked him from his reverie, and he looked up to see Tanner reaching for a bowl of hushpuppies. Glancing past Tanner, Slater saw his Old Lady, Beth, huddled in a corner with Tanner’s sister. Melissa had one arm around Beth’s waist, and Beth rested her head on Melissa’s shoulder. They both looked drawn, but Beth looked straight-up fragile, like a quick summer storm would wash her away.
“She okay?” Slater asked, nodding to Beth. Maybe this was too much for her, too many people, too much emotion. Her background was a strange one, and Slater wouldn’t have blamed her if this was overwhelming.
Tanner glanced back at Beth, face contorted with worry. “She liked Judge a lot. And—I dunno.” He shrugged, looking lost. “We haven’t heard from her sister in a while. Her folks don’t contact her much anyway, but Hannah’s different. It’s not like her to fall off the radar.”
Punk slid onto the bar stool next to Tanner’s, catching the last of his words. “Her folks are God-freaks though, right? They’re probably keeping Hannah under lock and key so Beth can’t corrupt her pure, virginal soul.”
Slater glared at Punk, too late to silence him. Tanner gripped his beer bottle so hard his knuckles turned white, and for a second Slater really thought he might lamp Punk with it. But then he relaxed his grip and picked up another hushpuppy.
“Shut the fuck up, man,” Tanner said with more misery than heat. “I don’t want to kick your ass today.”
Unrepentant, Punk pointed at Slater. “A vodka on the rocks, barkeep.”
“Given up on Taylor already?” Slater asked, pouring him a double shot.
“Just lubing myself up.” Punk downed the drink in one, pulling a face as he did. He pushed the glass back at Slater. “Did anyone call Norse? He would have wanted to be here.”
Tanner grunted. “Nash would have beat him to death with the funeral flowers if he showed up.”
Norse had walked out of the club after a fight with Nash a few months back. Nobody had heard from him since, and he was practically becoming Wild Blood folklore. Big dumb turd who flew off the handle and vanished. Slater thought he’d been an idiot, but Punk was right—he should have been here. Fuck, Wolf was here, wasn’t he?
“That’s not okay, man,” Punk said, echoing Slater’s thoughts. “He didn’t do anything unforgivable.”
“Like get someone killed,” Slater said before he could stop himself.
Tanner shot him a warning look. “It’s not our call.”
Punk rolled his eyes, but parted without saying anything else, proof that miracles did happen. Slater busied himself wiping the spotless bar, not sure what else to say. Tanner saved him, clapping his arm.
“Get on this side of the bar and chill the fuck out for a while,” he said. “I’ll get one of the other prospects to take over for you.”
“Thanks.” Slater refilled his glass, wishing he could just call it a day and leave. He’d neglected his security business this week, helping with the funeral arrangements, and as dull as it was, he should be at home doing paperwork. But that felt like a betrayal of Judge. And no doubt he’d be expected to help clean up when the wake finally wound down in the early hours of the morning. The paperwork wasn’t going anywhere. Balancing the MC life with the rest of his life was tough at the best of times. Rhonda’s death, followed so quickly by Judge’s, meant this was far from the best of times.
He slid from behind the bar, following Tanner over to Beth and Melissa for lack of other ideas. Before long, he was listening to Tanner and Melissa swap crazy stories about Judge, and he found himself laughing despite the numbness inside. More brothers joined them, throwing in their own outrageous tales, and a sense of warmth and peace started to fill Slater, helped along by the bourbon. This was what funerals were for, really. Draining the poison of grief, remembering the good times that made that grief so sharp.
He didn’t like it. Didn’t like the loss or the mourning. He’d never get used to that. But the love, the family, that eased the pain, and that was what Wild Blood needed today, and that was what they gave each other.