It was finally fucking over.
Or maybe it was just beginning.
Either way, years, years of busting his ass, taking shit, and being treated like a worthless maggot were finished.
He was finally a brother.
Well, he was ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the way in. They couldn’t just vote him in and chuck him the patch he’d been salivating over for the past two years. No, they had to throw him one last challenge, and a bitch of a test it was.
A branding. The Hell’s Handlers Motorcycle Club emblem. On the left forearm. It was as important as the patches on the leather cut each brother wore. So important, if a man was tatted on his left forearm he couldn’t even prospect. No, the emblem had to be seared into clean skin, so anyone and everyone would know who belonged to the motorcycle club.
And if being branded wasn’t bad enough, there were rules that went along with the barbaric ceremony.
Every brother had to be in attendance. Heckling, ribbing, waiting to see just how much the new member wanted to be a part of the life. Waiting for them to crack.
A grunt of pain was allowed, but beyond that, any outward show of weakness would null and void the unanimous vote to end the prospecting period and make him a fully-patched member of the Hell’s Handlers MC.
He wouldn’t make a peep. They could cut his fucking arm off and beat him with it and Zach still wouldn’t utter a sound. That patch was his, and the only way he’d give it up was if some lucky motherfucker managed to pry it from his cold, dead hands. Even then, he’d haunt the bastard and wear the thing as a spirit.
A shrill whistle cut through the raucous laughter and drunken male partying around a huge bonfire. The fire was necessary because the night air was barely butting up against forty degrees. And, of course, the guys made him stand around shirtless while he waited for his fate.
Usually, the sound of fucking made up much of the party’s noise, but not tonight. This was just for the men, brothers in all but blood. At least this early part of the night. After Zach got his patch, they’d bring in the club pussy and he’d have his pick of the litter. One, two, hell even three women if he wanted. He’d earned it, watching brother after brother partake in the sweet privilege that was not bestowed on prospects. Club pussy was for patched members only.
His dick twitched in his pants but died the moment his president spoke. “Okay, fuckers, listen up.”
All around him, his soon to be new brothers lowered their drinks and gave their leader, Copper, their full attention. At twenty-nine, Copper was young to be in the role of club president, and since he’d been at it for almost four years, he was officially the youngest leader in the club’s near fifty-year history.
“We’re just minutes away from welcoming another brother into the club. Shit, Zach’s been one of the best prospects we’ve ever had. Tough as fuckin’ nails, pulls more than his own weight, never runs his mouth, loyal.” A puff of steam drifted from Copper’s mouth as he spoke to the group.
The prez wasn’t one to be fucked with. A good few inches over six feet, with a beard the color of a dirty penny, and plenty of hair to match, he was mean as a starving pit-bull. But Copper had the respect of every man in the club. Not just because he held the title of president, but because he’d earned it, dragging the club from the brink of disaster and making it a thriving brotherhood once again.
Zach blew on his hands, trying to infuse some warmth into the frozen digits. Damn, it was colder than a witch’s titty and standing around shirtless for the past half hour hadn’t helped anything.
“Just one more test of this asshole’s strength before he gets to be one of us. Ready, boys?” Copper waved Zach over to the mountain of wood crackling and spitting sparks. Sticking out of the bonfire, a long branding iron roasted away, just waiting to scorch some of Zach’s skin.
Shouts of encouragement and a few hecklers betting on how much of a pussy he was and what octave his scream would hit reached him as he made his way to the fire and his waiting president. Careful to keep his expression neutral, Zach drew up next to his prez and paused. Wasn’t that the whole point? Act like he wasn’t scared. Wasn’t about to shit his pants in anticipation of what would probably be the worst physical pain he’d ever experienced.
Fuckin’ Copper’s facial hair split and his teeth gleamed in the flickering fire. Prez lived for this bull. And if he didn’t, he sure acted like he did with that shitty grin of anticipation. “Anything you want to say first?”
Zach shook his head while he bounced on the balls of his feet, hitting his pecs as hard as he could. Maybe if he could get some pain going somewhere else, the burn of the iron wouldn’t be so bad.
“Won’t work,” Copper said, as though reading his mind. “Tried the same thing when I was in your spot. Ain’t nothing gonna make this shit any better.” He bent and retrieved a bottle from next to his foot. Zach had no idea what was in it, moonshine probably. “You know the drill. Bottle in your left hand. Ten seconds to drink as much as you can. Hold your arm out straight. I’ll mark ya. No dropping the bottle. No spilling. No screaming. No puking. Stay on your feet for two whole minutes. Then you’re a fuckin’ brother.”
Zach nodded. His chest rose and fell in a rapid rhythm as his breathing increased and the blood raced through his veins. After blowing out a breath, he grabbed the bottle and brought it to his lips, tilting his head back and opening his throat as much as he could.
Some of the nastiest hooch he’d ever tasted flooded his mouth and streamed down his throat, burning a path to his stomach. Fitting really, since he was about to be burned all to a crisp anyway. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear his soon to be brothers whooping like a horde of wild baboons, but he managed to drown out most of the noise. All but the sound of Copper counting down from ten.
Zach tore the bottle from his lips and extended his arm. Unable to look away, he stared in fascinated horror as the glowing end of the iron made contact with the thin skin of his forearm. There was a fraction of a second where his eyes registered the flesh-to-iron connection, but the pain hadn’t yet reached his brain.
All-consuming, searing pain like he’d never experienced fired through his nerve endings. Though the spot being branded was no bigger than a silver dollar, agony seemed to encompass his entire being until he couldn’t recognize where it originated from. Then there was the audible singe accompanied by the stench of melting flesh. He wasn’t expecting that.
Blinding pain was a phrase he’d heard before, but in that moment, he lived it. Darkness clouded his vision, and he slammed his knees back, determined not to succumb to the blissful oblivion that hovered just out of reach.
All around him, men screamed and hollered, but he couldn’t make out their cries over the rushing in his ears. Nostrils flaring with each forceful inhalation and exhalation, he mashed his teeth together, probably pulverizing the enamel, as he fought to remain conscious.
Then, the nausea hit. Instead of helping to lessen the pain, the damn moonshine sloshed in his gut and started a trip back up his esophagus, just as disgusting the second time around.
His eyes locked with Copper’s. The grinning bastard was definitely enjoying it. All the more motivation to remain standing, quiet, and avoid vomiting the moonshine all over.
Copper pulled the iron away and tossed it to the ground, but it did nothing to diminish the agony. After what seemed like an eternity, Copper pulled his gaze away and checked his watch. Seconds ticked by slower than the thickest motor oil dripping from an engine. Finally, he looked at Zach again and this time his smile was genuine, welcoming. “Two minutes, brother.”
Brother. Sweeter fucking words had never been spoken.
Copper grabbed him by the elbow and lifted his throbbing arm. The pain was still there, but now the rush of excitement at achieving his two-year long goal overrode the worst of it. That, and the moonshine was kicking in.
With a loud cry of triumph, Copper held up Zach’s branded arm. “Say hello to your newest brother, men.” Cheers rose up all around.
Zach swayed on his feet as pain and nausea still warred for victory over his consciousness.
Copper whistled, reigning in the crazy. “He’s now to be shown the same respect any other brother receives. He’s going to make a damn fine addition to the club.”
Zach’s chest constricted as pride surged.
“Proud of you, brother,” Copper said, for Zach’s ears only. “You were one hell of a prospect, and you’ll be one hell of an addition to the club.”
Raising his voice again, Copper turned to the rowdy crowd. “Now someone get Zach a beer and some pussy. The man’s waited long enough.”
They wouldn’t be giving him any pain medication for the burn, but losing his dick in a club girl should take care of the last of the discomfort.
Brothers converged on him from all angles, slapping his back and welcoming him. Not only would the moment be burned into his skin forever, but it was seared into his brain as well.
Now it was time to set his sights on an executive position.
Enforcer would do quite nicely.