I FOLDED WITH THE FORCE OF THE news and covered my mouth to keep down the bile that threatened, burning my throat. His words repeated in my mind, spiraling my thoughts down into memories I never wanted to revisit.
The room around me dissolved into the dark, run down room that had been my prison. The scar on my stomach burned, the feel of a blade all too easy to remember.
My body wasn’t my own. A cold numbness took over, stealing all feeling, all thoughts. But it was easier that way and protected me from going too deep into my nightmare.
It was only when I opened my eyes that I realized I was in Gage’s arms. His hands moved quickly up and down my back, trying to coax me out. His lips were moving, saying something, but it took a moment for the words to break through.
“It’s too much.” His eyes darted over me, panic brightening the blue. “I knew this was too much, that’s why I didn’t want to tell you. Nobody has to know you know, you can go—”
“Don’t.” I pulled back, but he kept his arms circled around me. “Not that again. I just…” I took a breath, forcing the memories down. “I’m all right, it was just a shock. It’s a lot to take in.” Icicles were painful under my skin, freezing and stabbing as I tried to take in air. My fingertips were frozen; I trapped them between my knees for warmth and to stop their bone aching vibrations.
“I didn’t mean it like that, like before.” Gage’s hands were hot as they slid down my bare arms and grabbed my hands, pulling them into the warmth of his body. “You’re handling this better than I thought, better than I did. I wasn’t thinking straight earlier, it was all getting to me, and I didn’t want it to touch you. I don’t want you hurt by any of it.” He circled his arms back around me, his warmth creeping into the cold that had me trapped. “I realize now I could never let you go, not really. I would have come back for you. I need you. Talking to you now, I’m already thinking clearer.” I rested my head on his chest, his heart was back to it’s steady, strong rhythm. “You should go back to Vegas for a little while, until things calm down here.”
I went rigid. “Only if you’re coming with me.” I already knew what the answer was going to be, and I pulled out of his grip to look him in the eye. “This isn’t a time to be apart, we’ve already been apart too much. I can help.”
“No.” His icy blue eyes were as sharp as ever, determination clear in them. “You’re not going to get involved. I’m not putting you in the middle.”
“I already am. Whether you want me there or not, I’m linked with you. People know you. They know me. I’m not some secret.”
“There’s a difference between being a wife on the sidelines and being involved.”
We stared at each other in silent challenge. His shoulders tense and lines in his jaw flexing. I tried to find a response but dropped it. I didn’t want to argue when he was going through so muc,h and we’d taken a step forward tonight. I didn’t want to go back. Plus, there was a girl missing. We shouldn’t be talking about me.
“Fine.” I dropped my eyes, ending the stare off. “But what about this girl. What’s being done?” Sandpaper coated my throat, making it hard to swallow as my mind raced ahead, panic seizing my heart.
His shoulders relaxed slightly as he let go of our argument and focused back on our original conversation. “I talked to Viktor, but he’s being closed lip about it. Says it’s not my concern.” Gage curled his fingers into a fist and released it, stretching them wide as he met my eyes. “But it is. She worked for me, and I didn’t keep her safe. And if shit isn’t handled and the police get involved, I’m her employer of record. I’m the one they’ll question.”
“It’s probably better you’re not involved then. If you get questioned, you don’t know anything.”
His eyes narrowed into slits as he flinched at my words. “I already know too much. She may have been one of the girls quitting to work for him, but the day before she worked for me. She called Cherry for help. I can’t just let that go. I mean, fuck, I don’t even know if I can trust Viktor to do anything.”
Even though I had never met him, I didn’t trust Viktor either, and I was glad to hear Gage admit it too. “What about the other girls then? The other ones who quit? Do you know if they are okay?”
He nodded slowly, watching me with interest lighting his gaze. “Yeah, they’re fine. I had Cherry check on them.”
“You think it’s the same people from before, that tried to hurt her, Cherry? The ones Viktor sent you after?” Thinking out loud helped to keep my emotions from taking hold. I couldn’t focus on what Gage had been doing; I may never let that truth settle.
That same curious look stayed on his face as he nodded, large hands moving to my thighs, dragging me over the mattress closer to him. “I think so. But I don’t know who they are. I couldn’t make a connection between the names Viktor gave me to anyone else. I haven’t been in this city long enough to know all the key players, but I know of some other people who might not take well to Viktor putting new girls out, but…” He absently rubbed his hands on my legs, friction heating my skin under his palms. “They’re not stupid enough to challenge him. I think this is something else.” His hands paused as his forehead wrinkled. “I keep hitting dead ends. All I can do is keep my other girls safe.”
That brick dropped back in my gut, and I couldn’t keep down the words that jumped out. “It’s not your girls they’re after, it’s Viktor’s girls.” Jealousy was an unwanted weed that I couldn’t kill, rooting in me.
“Maybe.” His eyes scanned over me, recognizing the tension in my words. “But when they attacked Cherry, it was in my club.”
“But she was probably working for Viktor at the time, you didn’t stop that till this weekend.”
He released his breath through his lips. “Yeah. You’re probably right. But I won’t let them get hurt for working in my club.”
“Of course not.” I looked to him, trying to get him to understand something that didn’t even make sense to me. “I just meant, it’s not your fault, it’s Viktor’s.”
I’m your only girl. I kept the thought silent, knowing it was selfish and wouldn’t help. “Is that what you were going to do tonight, look out for them? And I’m keeping you from it?” Guilt ate at me. “I understand now if you need to go.”
“No, I can stay. We’ve got extra security and Ian can handle it tonight.” He leaned in close, arms on either side of me as he braced himself on the bed, face a few inches from mine. “You’re something else. I’m sorry I fucking doubted this, you.” He pressed his lips to mine, trapping my bottom lip between his as he nibbled lightly at it, one hand snaking up my spine and gliding into my hair. He pulled back slightly. “You’re the most important thing to me.” He pecked the corner of my mouth. “You.” His lips pressed to my cheek, hand caressing behind it. “And I’m sorry for making you doubt that.”
I had to slide my arms around him to keep myself from falling back as he pressed into me, inhaling me as his lips covered mine again. I moved with him, letting him guide us back to the bed in slow motion.
I wasn’t sure what this was, but his touches and kisses sucked me in to the point of no return even though the fall was excruciatingly slow. Each of his movements were controlled and deliberate, one at a time. He moved over me, every inch of him felt as he rolled his hips. I wanted more. He raised my arms over my head and held them still, meeting my eyes with his.
“Let me show you. Let me take care of you. Only you.”
The weight of his body on mine, and the intensity in his gaze was enough to unravel me. Sweet pressure built low in my stomach, making me shift below him.
“Only me.” I needed those words. They washed over the wounds of the past month, soothing.
“Always. Forever.” His lips teased mine, barely grazing them, and his hands slid down the length of me. “Only you.” He slid his fingers under my shirt, tickling as he lifted the fabric from my skin. Shifting down, his lips followed his fingers as he slid up my shirt. Then his hands hooked onto the top of my pants, sliding them down and off.
I watched him with a heated need building, all ice from earlier melted, puddled in my stomach.
He stopped between my legs. The glint in his eyes promised pleasure, and I welcomed the escape. I dropped my knees open to let him in.
Threading my fingers through his hair, I let all other thoughts roll off me as pleasure pulsed, consuming everything else. Everything else would have to wait because for the rest of the night we made each other the priority, not letting thoughts interfere with our promises to each other. We escaped reality in the best way we knew, with each other.
It was pointless to be in class, but here I was, for the third day in a row since he’d told me everything. He said, since I wouldn’t leave the state, I needed to keep on routine, anything else could be seen as suspicious if things were investigated.
But I couldn’t concentrate. My paper was blank, besides the topic of the lesson and date at the top. I stopped listening after that. The professor’s voice was only a background buzz to my thoughts.
I don’t know what type of life I thought I was building this last year and a half, but deep down, I knew it was never real, never permanent. There was a peace in finally accepting it, but I was restless straddling both worlds.
My agitation rose, muscles straining and stomach twisting as I thought about Gage. I made sure to be home for him, to be the one he let his guard down with and opened up to. I finally had that part of him back, but he hadn’t let me do more than that. Short of searching back alleys and rivers, I couldn’t think of what to do. I didn’t know how to help his situation, but I wanted to.
I looked down at the ladder pattern I was scribbling on my paper, like a train track. Nan and I always hung out on the train tracks behind her mom’s house, for the risk. Trains were noisy, but by time you heard them, you only had seconds to move out of the way. Nan knew then, what I was only realizing now, we both sought danger, we fed off of it.
My phone vibrated in my pocket, sliding it out, I read the text lighting the screen.
Dexter: Sis help me out?
Dexter: I’ve got a fight next month. Tell Gage when he’s in a good mood.
Me: Who? Where? When? What type?
He didn’t respond back as quick as his other texts, and I stared at the screen waiting, already sure he wasn’t talking about boxing. There would be no concern telling Gage if it was boxing.
When the professor dismissed us, I scooped up my notebook in my arm and kept my phone in my hand, waiting for Dexter to respond.
Jogging down the steps, Leo tapped my shoulder from behind.
“You didn’t take very many notes.”
“Yeah, I’m off today.” I slowed my pace, letting him step beside me.
“Well, I took excellent notes.” He held up his spiral notebook with a grin. “Kendall told me I had to since she’s out with a broken ankle. That girl is clumsy.”
I stopped at the bottom steps to talk. Our next classes were in opposite directions. “Sylvie told me about it at practice yesterday. I heard it happened after a double date, you and Brice?”
“Don’t I wish there were something to tell? We had subs and went home.” He shrugged, but his face twitched as he tried to keep the smile from stretching.
My phone buzzed Dexter’s response. It was a link to a flier for his fight, and it proved my suspicions. It was a UFC event sponsored by that guy that approached Gage in Vegas, Phil Magnally.
“So Whadya say?”
I tore my eyes off my screen to focus on Leo.
“Sunday? Study and then Sidelines?” He rolled his eyes at having to explain again.
“I can’t. Have fun though, I’ll see you Monday.” I waved as I turned to walk away, fingers navigating over my phone to call Dexter.
Gage called first. His photo popping up surprised me, but I answered immediately.
“Hey.” My nerves pricked. He wasn’t the type to call without a reason.
“Regan,” my name dropped from him with relief. “I—I need to see you. Meet me at our place. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Are you at the club? That’s closer for me, I could be there in twenty.”
“No,” he groaned, and I could picture his hand moving through his hair with it. “Or, okay. Okay, do that. Meet me here.”
“I’m on my way.”
I headed to the car instead of my next class, trying to still the swirling thoughts in my head. There was no point in speculating, he would tell me soon enough, but it didn’t keep me from worrying.
I hated driving in the city; even with my license I preferred to take the subway, but Gage had insisted I drive this week. My agitation was rising, and traffic wore on my already frayed nerves. By the time I reached the nearly empty lot of the club, I was ready to fight whatever battle there was.
A tall, skinny brunette was smoking a cigarette outside the back door in skintight jeans and a mid-drift showing Giant’s jersey.
“Not open yet.” Her accent was thick, but words were clear.
She pushed off the wall and tossed her cigarette, stepping in front of the door when she saw I wasn’t stopping. “I said—”
“I heard you.” I looked directly into her light green eyes but stopped myself from pushing her out of the way. Not for fear, but because I didn’t want to cause any more drama for Gage. “I’m here to see my husband.”
She scanned over me and her red lips curled. “Oh, Mrs. Lawson? I didn’t recognize.” She opened the door, pushing it for me to catch as she walked through the backroom to the open club area, long dark hair swaying behind her. “He’s in his office. I get him for you,” she said over her shoulder.
“No, That’s all right. I’ll get him.” I didn’t need a go between.
She paused, turning to me with folded arms. “I’m Katya. Good to meet you. Finally.” Her sweet smile was fake, the dig clear in her tone.
“Katy? I’m Regan—”
“Kah— tee— ya.” She shrugged off the correction. “Everyone calls me Cherry though.”
“Cherry?” I had to look at her skinny frame with new respect since she fought off a guy with a knife.
Her teeth bit into her bottom lip as she smiled knowingly. “You hear of me. From who? Ian or Lawson?”
“Regan.” Gage leaned out of his office on the opposite side of the room, signaling for me to come over.
“Kegs delivered. No liquor yet,” Cherry yelled to him.
He glanced towards her, tone changing to business. “If it’s not here in the next hour, we’ll call.” He nodded for me and opened the door wider in invitation.
And I didn’t look back or give another thought to the girl standing in the club. She could be as smug as she wanted to be about her role here, my man needed me.
I stepped into his office, a clean space of blacks and greys with simple, but strong, furniture.
He enveloped me in his arms the moment the door clicked shut, filling my senses. His strong warmth surrounded me, his natural clean scent just under the slightly sweet smoky scent of the club. His stiff muscles relaxed in my arms, and then his lips covered mine, hands gripping my waist. His kiss was cool and sweet like he just had a drink, but it quickly warmed as he sucked my bottom lip between his.
His hands moved over the edge of my jeans, circling around me, when they reached my back he pulled away. “Where’s your gun?”
I took a breath, recovering from the greeting. I patted the top of my boot where my Sig was strapped to my calf, hidden under the leather of my riding boots. “Here.”
“What have I told you? Keep it at your waist, so you can get to it quick. You waist time getting it from your boot or if someone grabs you—”
“If they grab me, they’ll probably get to my gun at my waist before I can.” I felt the need to defend my choice. “I can’t walk around campus strapped like that, someone will see.”
Stepping back from me, he gripped his head and growled, “When will you stop fighting everything I tell you?”
“What’s going on? You didn’t call me here over my gun.” I took a tentative step towards him and he melted, starting with his eyes, anger evaporating.
He stepped back to his sofa and lowered himself down. “They found her.”
“Her? The missing girl.”
His face was blank when he lifted his head.
Sitting next to him, I grabbed his hands, not sure if it was to calm him or me. “Is she…Where did they find her?”
He looked over at me with a strange expression, an emptiness I couldn’t place. But when he shook his head, my heart dropped with the weight of the admission.
“Stop.” He pushed my hands off of him and stood up. “That girl was killed and dropped at one of Viktor’s warehouses. And I did nothing.” He stalked across the room, spinning back around. “Nothing.”
He was close to erupting, so I sat still, not wanting to be a trigger.
He looked around the office, his strained breathing reaching me. “Viktor. I haven’t been able to get a hold of him yet. I have to talk to him and find out more.”
His talking seemed to help release some of the pressure so I questioned him, “When do you think that will happen?”
His eyes snapped to mine, like my voice surprised him. “Maybe this weekend. He’s in DC for some political shit. But when he gets back, I’ll meet with him. Until then…” he took a deep breath and stepped towards me. “I don’t want you going anywhere. Stay at the condo until I can figure out if this is in retaliation for what I’ve done or if it’s really towards Viktor.”
I was just about to respond when a knock echoed around the room.
Gage pulled open the door and Cherry leaned into the frame. “Liquor delivered, but Sam’s a no shown. I need help to open.”
“Ian’s out there right?” He quickly slipped into business mode, like nothing else bothered him. “Have you called Tyson?”
“Ian’s here. Tyson will be here at five.”
He nodded, gripping the door edge. “All right. I’ll be out soon.”
When she walked away he closed the door and turned to me.
I jumped up before he could speak. “I can help.” I stepped towards him. “I get that you’re worried, but I can’t just sit at home. I can help out—”
“You’re not working out there,” He cut me off.
“I won’t, but I can do other stuff, stock, clean, handle phones. Whatever. Anything. But I can’t sit at home.”
He watched me wearily, and I saw the cracks in his decision and pressed on them.
Stepping closer, I slid my fingers lightly over his shirt. “Plus, then I’ll be here, you’ll know I’m okay.”
The phone on his desk started ringing and he groaned. “For tonight. Only.”