It seemed as if tens of breaths were held in unison as Styx’s hazel gaze collided with mine. Suddenly, a peel of laughter let rip, snapping us both out of our reverie.

“Gentle? Kind? Fuck, she don’t know him too well at all!” AK staggered to his feet, clearly having had too much to drink, waving his bottle of liquor in his hands, shirt off, jeans unbuttoned at the top, a huge cross tattooed on his chest. “He’s the f**kin’ Hangmen Mute, the giver of permanent smiles!”

Ky stomped over to AK. Walking straight up to him, Ky punched AK square in the face, knocking him to the ground. As Ky hovered above AK’s out-cold body, he hissed loudly, “Shut the f**k up. I’m tired of your damn voice!”

I did not realize how close I had shifted to Rider for protection and I blushed when I found myself sitting in the warm curve of his stomach, his arm behind, but not touching, my back. A rustle of leaves attracted my attention and I turned only to see the heavily tattooed back of Styx entering the thick forest, leaving us all behind. My heart dropped in sadness.

“Stop what y’all are doing!”

A man wearing a beige uniform came on unsteady feet through the north of the trees, a large rifle shaking in his thin arms. “You’re not allowed vehicles on this land, so I’m gonna have to ask y’all to leave.”

Ky threw back his head and laughed, Viking and Flame flanking him, doing the same. “Well, if it isn’t Ranger Fuckin’ Smith!” Ky barked out.

Viking strutted forward, ignoring the safety of the gun clicking. “Where’s Yogi, busy butt-fuckin’ Boo-Boo?” I had no idea what he was talking about, but it seemed humorous to the brothers and women around me.

Viking met the man up close, his chest flush to the end of the rifle’s barrel. “Run along, little ranger, before we stop playin’ nice. You’re lucky you caught us on a f**kin’ good day.”

The man’s eyes darted anxiously around the group, all the men casually standing on their feet, the girls carrying on talking and drinking as though oblivious to the threat of Viking being shot through the chest at any moment.

“I’ll… call th-the police!” he threatened weakly, falling over his words.

Ky threw up his hands. “Oh no! Not the police!” He smiled his devastatingly handsome smile and said, “Go ahead. They’re all on the f**kin’ payroll anyway. They won’t do shit. They, unlike you, you jumped-up little runt, know not to f**k with the Hangmen.”

The man’s eyes widened at that piece of information. He began backing away, pointing his gun at several of the brothers before fleeing into the bushes.

Whooping and whistling, the brothers pulled out their guns and fired them into the air. The noise was as deafening as thunder.

Ky turned around, unbuttoning his jeans. I closed my eyes before he completely bared himself, but I heard him shout, “Bitches get naked, tits and pussies out! Brothers, I’ll see you in the water!” Squeals and laughter echoed off the large rocks, and I opened my eyes to behold bare bodies launching off the high ground into the water.

Beauty was on her feet and reached down to me. “Let’s go!”

Shaking my head, I insisted, “No. You go. I shall stay here.” She rolled her eyes, clearly about to protest but Tank ran for her, scooping her over his shoulder and raced over the edge. Beauty screamed a bloodcurdling scream.

Letti and Bull had moved to lower ground to watch the antics… That only left Rider and me sat up at the camp.

“You not going in?” I asked.

Rider rubbed his bristly brown beard and smiled. “Not my thing.”

Tilting my head, I studied him. “You are nothing like the others.”

One dark eyebrow rose.

“What I mean is, you do not drink, smoke, or use the women. Though they seem mighty disappointed at that. You are never angry. You are quiet, a thinker… a healer.”

Rider shrugged. “Don’t mean I haven’t done my fair share of bad shit, sugar. Life on the road’s a whole lot different to what you’re seeing back at the compound.”

“But still. It has been nice to have you around. Thank you… You make me feel safe.”

Rider’s dark gaze locked on to me. Sensing a worrying shift in my mood, I stood up quickly and looked down at his startled expression.

“I think I will go for a walk.”

Rider sighed quietly and tightened the bandana around his head. “You wanting company?”

“I shall be okay. But thank you.” With that, I headed to the sandy trail and into the tall trees, knowing Rider watched me with every step I took.

Walking slowly, I wrapped my hands around my waist, a hollow feeling in my stomach. I felt so out of my depth on the outside: the references people made to things I did not know, the rules of the Hangmen, and worse, the fact that I was a “freak” to them. As Letti had said, a girl shielded from civilization all her life, with no idea how to survive on her own. At age twenty-three, I felt like the only two people I could turn to were Styx and Rider. Rider, about whom I had no idea what he was thinking perhaps ninety percent of the time. And Styx… yes, Styx… the man who, when near, made me feel ashamed of the impure thoughts that occupied my mind. He confused me more than anyone I had ever met. The mute man with so much responsibly at such a young age, a man who already had a woman who adored him, a fact that made my heart break into a million shattered pieces.

Stopping in the center of a circle of trees, I looked up at the bright-blue sky and inhaled the earthy scent of the forest. Scooping my long heavy hair off my back, I held it to my head, relishing the breeze kissing my bare skin.