Prologue (Dark River Stone Collective)
Bile rose up my throat as I entered the hospital and its scent invaded my senses. I’d only ever had bad experiences when I came into this place, and the hairs on the back of my neck standing up and my gut clenching, told me this time wouldn’t be any different.
As I approached the front desk, the sound of my boots hitting the floor drew the attention of the sleepy-eyed woman who manned it. Her visible jerk and widening eyes were a reaction I was used to, so I kept my face a neutral mask.
“Can I help you?” Her southern drawl was filled with anything but friendliness.
“My sis called, she’s havin’ a baby. I’m her birthin’ buddy.” I rasped, and this time my lips twitched at the horror crossing the woman’s face.
Her cheeks paled as her gaze roamed over me. I was sure she’d missed nothing, from my six foot five inch height, to the black leather I wore, to my long, wavy, dark brown hair I’d not bothered to brush in my haste to get here.
The call I’d gotten an hour ago from my sister to say she’d gone into labor early, filled me with dread. I’d somehow blocked out this possibility when she’d insisted on me being there for her. I’d been there for her throughout our shitty lives, and this was no different and she knew it. Even if I didn’t have the first clue as to what I was doing. I mean, I’m a thirty-five-year-old tattoo artist who runs a motorcycle club. How the fuck was I supposed to be someone’s birthin’ buddy for fucksake?
“Her name?” the woman squeaked.
The sounds of tapping filled the dead air between us and I scraped my booted foot on the floor as I glanced about, only seeing one other guy, slouched sleeping on one of the plastic chairs. A Tuesday in the hospital seemed to be a slow night. I’d have to remember that the next time I needed to come.
I hated sitting waiting for hours for some trainee to come and patch up whatever injury I’d gotten from fighting. They always gave me someone that looked like their Mamma still had to wipe their ass.
“It appears your sister is booked into the maternity ward, it’s on the second floor.” She pointed behind me. “Take the elevator to the second floor, turn right as you exit, and go straight down to the double doors. There’s a bell to press to call for attention. They’ll check with your sister before you can enter,” she warned, and I rolled my eyes.
I glanced at the bank of elevators before giving her a nod. “Thanks.”
In the elevator I rubbed at my eyes, trying to get rid of the tired feeling. I’d been up till one in the morning, finishing a tattoo on a prospect to the club. Quinn, aka Rattlesnake, had given me a headache as he’d whined and fucking moaned about how painful it was. Was it my fucking fault he’d chosen to have a rattlesnake tattooed from one hip bone to the other? I’d warned the stupid fuck it would be painful over bone, but he’d insisted.
I’d had a few moments of doubt, wondering whether we’d made a mistake giving him entry into the club the way he bitched, but he’d not passed out or asked me to stop, so that was something. Sid, my second in command and otherwise known as Serpent, had passed out cold the first time I’d tattooed him. He’d never lived it down, and the old crew still gave him shit for it.
The elevator chimed as it reached the second floor and, walking out of the elevator, I rolled my shoulders to ease the stiffness in my upper back from being hunched over. Turning right, I headed down the hall that smelled of disinfectant, though the scent didn’t quite mask the odor of blood and guts.
The couple of people roaming the hallway dressed in dark green scrubs gave me a wide berth as my feet thudded loudly in the nearly empty hallway. The walls were painted a pale rose color and held some cheery pictures.
Reaching the door, I pressed the bell and waited, looking into the security camera.
“Hello, how can I help?” asked a tiny female voice.
“My sister rang me, Lizzie Stone. She’s in havin’ a baby. I’m Linc Stone, you should be expecting me. I’m her buddy to help her through this,” I muttered, heat riding up my face at the silence that followed. I’d bet my last dollar the woman was probably comparing me to my tiny sister, with her angelic face. People often questioned our relationship until they looked at our eyes. The deep brown was threaded with gold and, depending on mood, could look more gold than brown.
It was the only good thing we’d gotten off our Pop. Mercifully, the mean ass fucker was long gone, so wouldn’t get anywhere near this new baby to spread his hate.
“I’ll need to check before I can let you in.”
The tiny voice pulled me from a place I didn’t really want to go and I watched the light above the camera go out. I stood like a dick, kicking at the floor. Why had I agreed to this?
The issue was, I’d do anything for my baby sister and she knew it. She had conned me when her fly-by-night ex had done a runner. What I should have done was chase his deadbeat ass down and hung him up by his balls until he agreed to support her. What did I do instead? Said yes to this madness.
That’s why I‘m here in the middle of the night, getting ready to tell her to breathe, and avoid looking at her pushing a tiny human out of her body!
What the fuck was I thinking?
Blaming the warmth in the hall for the sweat gathering around my hairline, I took off my leather jacket, leaving me in just the short-sleeved T-shirt I’d dragged on after the call. I glanced down and didn’t get a chance to swear when there was a buzzing sound and the door was released. With a sweaty palm I opened the door, dragging in a deep breath to try and slow down my thundering heart.
The Killer T-shirt I wore was forgotten about as I walked down another long hall, this one in a deeper pink, past several open doors. Some rooms were empty, while others housed heavily pregnant women and what I assumed were their folks to help.
I pushed aside the fact I probably looked as terrified as some of the faces I’d seen. By the time I got to the desk, the one member of staff I’d seen initially as I’d started the long walk had morphed into five. I got the feeling whoever had answered the intercom had called their buddies to come and get a good look at me.
Belton, Texas has a relatively small population, around twenty-three thousand, and our motorcycle club is well known, if not for all the right reasons. It didn’t stop the folks from coming to use the auto shop I owned to get their vehicles fixed, or to the tattoo shop I had to get inked. We paid our taxes and, on the whole, kept our noses clean…sort of. None of that made a difference to some of the folks though, who thought all bikers were just bad news.
I swallowed a sigh and tried to keep from scowling. “Lizzie Stone, where is she?” There was the sound of a loud mewl, followed by several cuss words I’d have been proud of, as a door opened behind the desk. Holy fuck, what were they doing to the woman?
Icy dread ran through me as I recalled Lizzie’s insistence that I watch a few of the birthing videos on YouTube. The ‘hell no’ I’d stuck to might not have been the best idea.
What was I walking into? Right then, I’d have preferred running into a rival motorcycle club on my own, rather than facing what was about to happen.
“If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to the birthing room. Lizzie has just been taken in. I’m Anne-Marie and I’ll be the midwife assisting with the birth—”
“How the fuck can you be assisting if you’re standin’ here,” I ground out harshly.
She took a step back, her face flushing rosily. “Erm…well…I was waiting for you,” she stuttered, sounding flustered.
“Then you better get movin’.” For some reason I couldn’t explain, a sense of urgency took hold of me. I never gave the other women a thought as I met Anne-Marie’s unprofessional glare.
“What’re we waitin’ for?” I raised the hand not holding my jacket and indicated she should get moving.
She swung around and huffed loud enough for me to hear, but I didn’t give two fucks. The sense of unease I’d had from the moment I’d answered my phone was increasing by the second. I wasn’t sure if it was just the reality of what was about to happen, or something else, but I’d always listened to my gut and it was saying ‘get movin’.’
Anne-Marie led us back down the hall to a double door that required a security swipe to enter. The scent that hit my nose as we walked through was like nothing I’d smelled before, and I started to breathe through my mouth, not wanting to think about what it was.
We came to yet another desk, a woman in navy blue scrubs sitting at the computer. She looked up and I gave her ten out of ten for showing no reaction as her gaze swept over me, before going to Anne-Marie.
“Anne-Marie, I thought you were bringing Lizzie in?” Her tone was sharp and her eyes held a hint of steel.
“I was waiting for her brother. Stop fussing, Barb, I’m here now.”
Something passed between the two women I didn’t understand, but it felt off. I shook it off as Anne-Marie went to the door on her left and opened it. The cry of agony coming from my sister left me in a cold sweat and I was running through the door ready for battle. I stopped cold at the sight before me.
Anne-Marie chuckled and tapped my shaking arm as she passed by me, letting the door close behind her. “It’s perfectly normal for Lizzie to be making these noises.”
I didn’t hear a word she said as I took in Lizzie. Her Stimpy pj top stopped at her bloated waist, revealing her bare ass. The back of the gurney she was on had been raised so she could hang on to it as she knelt. There were several sheets beneath her naked bottom half, covered in blood, and god knew what else, as it ran down her legs while she rocked, mewled, and cried out in distress. She seemed to repeat the pattern of rock, mewl, and cry.
The urge to run the other way was forced away by the need to make it all better, to stop what was hurting her. I felt utterly useless because this was a foe I couldn’t fight. I threw my jacket onto a small two seater sofa in pale blue that was off to the side, taking a steading breath as I walked to Lizzie.
“Lizzie? Lizzie, I’m here baby girl, I got you.” I avoided looking down at her lower body as I stroked her back as she’d taught me to do. Firm but not too firm. Her words ran through my head as she twisted to look at me.
Her eyes were full of tears and had black circles around them. Her skin was sweaty, and her long dark brown hair was stuck to her forehead.
“Oh thank god you’re here. Help me Linc. Make the pain stop. Something’s wrong, I can feel it,” she cried, ripping at my heart with her anguish.
Her body rippled under my hand as I continued to stroke her. I glared at Anne-Marie, who was talking to the other woman wearing a set of pale lilac scrubs, paying Lizzie no attention. “Do something, she says somethin’ ain’t right.”
“Now everything is fine. This is just part of birthing. The mom can get a little upset.”
She got no further when Lizzie cried out, “I wanna pushhhhhh.”
Anne-Marie came over and tutted. “You’ve only been laboring for a couple of hours. This is your first birth and it can take several hours before you’ll feel the need to push.”
Her tone sounded condescending to me, but as I was clueless, I bit my tongue.
But Lizzie was having none of it. “I’m tellin’ you I need to fuckin’ push,” she panted, and took hold of my other hand, holding it in a death grip. “Make them do something,” she pleaded with me after she got her breath back from another contraction.
Her whole body seemed to be alive the way it rippled and contracted. My knees weakened when I looked down between her legs and saw a pool of congealing blood. Back to breathing through my mouth, I glanced back at Anne-Marie, who didn’t seem at all concerned.
Then all hell broke loose as Lizzie screamed so loudly I thought she’d burst my ear drums and the two women ran to the bed. Anne-Marie finally examined Lizzie and when she stood, her face showed real fear.
She didn’t answer as she hit the emergency buzzer at the back of the bed and people started to appear like ants coming out of the woodwork. They were everywhere. Lizzie held onto my hand, her eyes pleading with me to help.
“Can someone tell me what the fuck is going on?!” I roared to the room, my fear fully in charge.
The woman who’d been sitting outside at the desk stated, “We have no time to waste, the baby is stuck. The shoulders are wedged in your sister’s pelvis, we need to get the baby out…” she trailed off as a man entered the room and she started to relay information to him, ignoring me completely.
I lowered my head to Lizzie’s, my hair curtaining her face to keep her from seeing the chaos in the room. “I’m here, I’m gonna keep you safe, I swear.” Even as I said it, I could see resignation fill her face with a knowledge I couldn’t even fathom.
“Keep River safe. Promise me no matter what, you’ll keep my baby safe. I’ve signed all the legal guardian paperwork and registered it with the court, so you won’t have any issues.” Her voice faded as her color drained. Her body went rigid and another scream froze my insides. This was followed by the cries of a baby.
“Come on Lizzie, you’ve got a baby to care for, stop this shit,” I rasped through the ball of emotions clogging my throat. Her eyelashes fluttered and her hand went slack in mine.