ONE NIGHT TURNED INTO SEVERAL, AND BY Sunday I had found a good groove. I managed the stock room and deliveries, staying out of the main club mostly. But I was close enough to see everything, and I absorbed whatever information I could, taking on a new task each day. Tonight, I moved in on the money.
I counted the set amount of twenties to keep in the register and slid the rest into a zipper pouch to count later. I did the same thing with the tens, unable to quit the old habit of straightening them by lining up the heads to face the same way.
The place was packed for a Sunday evening. All three stages were going and lights crossed the darkness to highlight the girls performing. Bass vibrated my bones as the sultry sound filled the air. The pressure was heightened since a large business group from Tokyo had rented a private room for themselves, and they were a demanding crowd.
Cherry came behind the bar and grabbed two more bottles of Fortaleza for the private group, they were drinking it like water. At this rate, I’d have to send Kane, the smallest of the bouncers, on a liquor store run. Cherry zipped from one end of the bar to the other, setting up their tray. She managed to keep her quick movements seductive, an art all the girls had down pat when the light’s dimmed and doors opened.
I froze while counting when Alessandra Rusnak walked out of Gage’s office. Her eyes swept up and met mine as she closed the door behind her. Placing the bills into the bag, I zipped it up and slid it into the side of my jeans, pulling my shirt over it.
She was at the bar’s edge, meeting me as I tried to exit. She placed a hand on her hip, hugged in a pencil skirt and form-fitting blouse that showed the top of her cleavage.
“Ivan told me you’d been here recently.” Her hair was pulled back, showing the angles of her face as she smiled at me like a cat that caught her mouse.
Her lackey, Ivan, was typically the one to come and pick up the night’s bank drop off.
I nodded and tried to walk past but she sidestepped, blocking me.
“Can I help you with something?” I faced her completely, not dropping my eyes from her dark stare.
“Maybe, we’ll see.” She took a breath, tension dropping from her shoulders as she sat on the stool to her side. “Let’s start with a drink. Vodka lime.”
My heart sped up. I’d talk with her, but I wasn’t serving her.
“Cherry, get Mrs. Rusnak a Vodka lime,” I spoke loud enough for her to hear me down the bar.
Cherry straightened. Closing the freezer under the bar, her sweet smile faltered as she looked towards me. She picked up her tray filled with ice buckets, liquor, and garnishes with ease, and then walked past us.
“Mercedes,” She called another server who was at a nearby table. “Get them a Vodka Lime.”
Alessandra’s brow quirked up and she smirked at me. “That one there, you need to get a hold of.”
“We’re busy. Now was there something more?” Anger simmered my blood. Cherry had undermined whatever strength I was trying to portray, but erupting now would only highlight that.
“Just wanted to talk, woman to woman.” She slid a twenty to Mercedes after she received her drink. “Keep the change.”
I leaned on the bar between us to hear her better over the heavy beat and the rowdy crowd as the dancer on the main stage climbed the pole.
“I wondered what type of woman you were. I wasn’t sure how you’d react to this life.” She gestured to the main stage. “But your getting involved now, so…” She sipped her drink before continuing, “The question is, do you have any say, or do you only do as your husband tells you?”
“We do things together.”
“No.” She lifted her hand, interrupting me. “I didn’t need an answer. I’ll see soon enough.”
“What does that mean? What’s going to happen?”
She laughed as if we really were two friends talking. “Nothing. You’re here now, I’ll see how you do, what you do. That will tell me what I need to know.” She shook her head, chest still vibrating with amusement. “These girls, all men see is pussy. Even you and me. All women. It’s important to show them otherwise. Show them you have a big dick and can fuck harder than them. The sooner the better.”
She sized me up as she took a sip of her drink. “I made the mistake of not stepping up soon enough, letting my husband take control at first. It made it that much harder when I finally took on a role. It’s still early for you, step up.” She stood up from her stool, surprising me by sliding her hand to my shoulder. “If you need anything, let me know.”
I pulled away from her grip. “All right.”
“Oh and another thing.” She tapped her polished nail on the bar. “These girls, you don’t need to worry about them. They are all on short visas, only here for about a month. But that one,” she pointed to where Cherry was walking through the club, “She’s staying a bit longer, has a different visa.” She cocked her head to the side, watching her bend over a man, whispering in his ear. “Gage helped her get it.” Alessandra’s eyes flicked back to mine. “Don’t let girls interfere with what you want to do though. Sometimes you have to turn a blind eye to things, focus on the business instead.”
Gage came out of his office on a direct path to us, and Alessandra waved to him but leaned in closer to me. “One last thing, I know Gage is trying to expand and open a night club. Talk with him about it. Our umbrella of protection and support can’t cover that right now. He’d do best to keep his focus on this club for now.” She winked, turning to leave. “Do svidaniya!”
I walked around the bar and through the lounge area of the club, meeting Gage in his path to me.
He grabbed my elbow and leaned in close. “You okay? What was she saying? And what the hell are you doing behind the bar anyways?”
I rolled my eyes and kept walking to his office. He followed my lead, not dropping my arm, shielding me needlessly. I was fully clothed in jeans and long sleeve shirt; no one was looking at me when there were boobs bouncing everywhere.
When the office door slammed closed, I pulled the money pouch out from under my shirt and shoved it into his chest. “I was taking inventory, the cash drawer was filled so I reset it.” I dropped my arm, stepping back as he clutched the bag. “We need more Fortaleza for the party.” I took a deep breath, my mind shuffled through everything Alessandra said, and I wondered where to start. “What did she meet with you about? She was in your office first.”
I took a couple more steps back, to prop myself on his desk, muscles vibrating.
He eyed me for a moment, sizing up my mood as he walked around his desk and slid the money pouch into a drawer. “She was scheduling the switch of some girls and giving me details of when I could meet with Viktor.” His voice was slow and cautious as he lowered himself onto his desk next to me, placing his hand on my thigh. “I didn’t know she was coming, or I would have warned you. She surprised me too.”
“When are you meeting with Viktor?” I released some of the tension in my shoulders, exhaling as I tried to wipe out her voice from playing in my head, stirring my insecurities and fears.
“Wednesday. They’ll call me about the time and place.”
“No other news about that.” I kept my emotions sealed and focused on the blinds drawn, blocking the view of the club.
“Nothing. I haven’t found out anything else about her.”
I wanted to say something, ask something, but I wasn’t sure what. I needed time to think about what Alessandra had been saying. I needed distance from her hints and the suspicion they caused. “I’m going to the store for the liquor. I’ll be back.”
He grabbed my hand, pulling me to face him as I tried to walk away. “Hey, are you okay? What was she talking to you about?”
That you arranged for Cherry to stay.
“I’m fine. She acted like she wanted to help me, said I could call her for anything.” I shook my head with a light laugh, trying to brush off everything else, not wanting her words to get to me. “But I think she was mostly trying to get me to convince you not to expand the club.”
Gage’s lips tugged up into a smile, softening and brightening his features as he pulled me close so I stood in front of him, between his legs. “Of course. She’ll try anything to protect her spot. Or Rusnak’s spot. What’d she say was wrong with the idea?”
“She said it was too soon. They can’t protect the new business yet.”
“What do you think?” He dipped his head to catch my eyes with his clear blue ones. Clearer than I’d seen in a while.
I dropped my eyes from his, running them along his plaid button up shirt. I knew the strength of his muscles underneath, and my palms tingled to touch him.
“I don’t think you should do it, but not because of what she said.” My eyes traveled back up him, till I was caught in his gaze again. “It’ll take you further away from boxing.” I did touch him then, hands sliding around his waist, feeling the lines of muscles underneath. “Working out with you again this morning reminded me of you in the ring.” He stilled under my touch or maybe it was my words. “I like seeing you there, but more than that, I know you love being there. I want that for you again.”
His smile was gone now, but his hands traveled over my arms, a light caress that sent tingles through me, and his eyes were electric, sparking that heat. “I don’t know if that’s possible anymore. It may never happen again.” His words extinguished the fire growing between us, but he gripped me tighter, keeping me still. “I’m trying to be honest.”
“I know.” I tried to smile for him but couldn’t cover my disappointment. “But with the time this club takes, I know opening something bigger and brand new will take even more time. And with everything else… Maybe Alessandra was right about it being too soon.”
He nodded but looked past me, features hardening. I should have left her out of my argument against expanding.
“Maybe. But she’s got her own motives against it. Viktor would support expanding, but then it’s not her project. It doesn’t strengthen the Rusnak’s hold. And with Anatoli getting out soon, she’s trying to reinforce his place.”
“He’s getting out soon? When? I didn’t know,” I interrupted, going rigid. My muscles strained to the point of shattering.
Gage pulled his attention back to me, hands moving up and down my shoulders in comfort. “Maybe. It depends on this new Attorney General. They’re bringing his case back up.” He shrugged, pulling me closer to him. “Babe, don’t worry about any of this for now. It may or may not happen. We can cross that bridge when we get there.”
I fell into him for a moment, absorbing the warmth his arms offered, and resting my head against his chest. The beat of his heart calmed mine.
“Hey, relax, go home.” He pulled back, looking at me. “You’ve been here all weekend, and you’ve got school tomorrow.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I’m fine. Class isn’t important.”
“It was to you. Go home, it’s late, you need to sleep.”
“Stop acting like a parent.” I jerked back from him.
He whirled me around in an instant and pressed me into the desktop. Pencils and paper and possibly a stapler jabbed into my back as he pinned me with his body. But the fire in his eyes, inches from mine, captured all my attention, making my pulse skip.
“I’m no parent. But you are mine to take care of.” One hand gripped my chin at an angle to meet his lips as they closed over mine.
I fisted his shirt in my fingers, body throbbing for more of him. Each pulse only strengthened my need, reinforced his words, it all belonged to him, and only he could take care of it. He pressed his hardness between my hips, grinding into me, and I moved my hands to his pants, eager to remove the barrier between us.
A knock at his door interrupted.
“Go away,” He yelled, barely removing his lips from mine. The smile on his face only raised my excitement.
“Ivan’s here for you, and Tyson got hurt kicking out some guy.”
Still hovering above me, he groaned. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
He pressed a quick kiss to my lips and his light eyes kept me in place. “You. Stay.”
Pushing back to standing, his fingers straightened the buttons on his jeans and shirt, never taking his eyes off me.
I sat up on the desk, smiling at him. “So I won’t go home early.”
The corner of his mouth curled and he stepped back to me, hands on either side of my legs. “What the hell am I supposed to do with you? You’re so fucking dangerous. I can’t say no to you.”
“Then say yes.” I wrapped my arms around his neck, pecking at his lips before sucking his bottom lip between my teeth.
“You’ve been here all weekend, what’s another couple hours. Just stay out of the main club.” He pointed to me with a stern look as he walked out the room.
We both stayed busy the rest of the evening and into the early morning hours. The club was closed and my work was done, so I waited in Gage’s office, reviewing a paper that was due in my English class. Ian sat on the couch, counting money into different piles for the umpteenth time with Kane.
Covering my yawn with my fist, I pulled my eyes from the computer. “You need help with that. I can recount for you.”
“Nah, I’m just double counting, checking Kane’s numbers. You focus on that paper, college. I expect to see an A plus at the top of that shit.” He was banding the money piles up and sliding them into a duffle. Then he looked up at me with a grin. “We can hang it up on the bar. Motivate some of them bi— I mean girls.” He cleared his throat, covering his slip in words as he stood. He turned back to Kane. “Clean this up. I’ll meet you at the car in ten, just got to run this by Gage.” He lifted the bag over his arm and left the room.
Kane picked up the extra bands and markers from the table, stopping in front of me as I stifled another yawn.
“You got a lot left to do?” He was squat, and his quiet, light voice didn’t match his build.
“Nope.” I turned off the computer screen and leaned back in the chair. “But I have to wake up early and drop it off.” I was half asleep already, eyes stinging with exhaustion.
He cocked his head, hand digging in his pocket. “I’ve got something if you need help with that.” He pulled out a little pouch from his pocket, gesturing it to me.
I was too stunned, reactions too slow, and he took that for acceptance. He poured the powder on Gage’s desk and then grabbed something from his pen cup to line it up like he was comfortable doing this here.
“What the fuck,” Gage’s hard voice jolted me from my trance. I jumped out of the seat as he stomped into the room followed by Ian.
Kane stepped back, eyes wide and confused. “We were only—”
“I fucking see what you were doing.” But he wasn’t looking at Kane, his fire was directed at me.
I shook my head, coming around the desk, unable to form words. He pulled me out of the room, pushing me to the wall just outside the door. The force wasn’t painful, but it was rough and my own anger flared in return.
“Stop jerking me around.”
“You are to never fucking touch that stuff. I’m not playing about this Regan. Do you hear me? Never.” His grip tightened as he ordered.
“I’m not the one who uses here. I didn’t do anything.”
He pulled away, dropping my arms. His anger grew before my eyes, making him larger. He jerked his head once in a nod and then stormed back into the room.
I followed as quick as I could, but he already had Kane pinned to the wall, forearm over his throat. “This shit’s done. I don’t want to fucking see you around here again you piece of shit. I—”
“Stop, dude. Let him go.” Ian pulled on Gage’s shirt, trying to get between them. “He didn’t know. We do this shit all the time.”
Gage released Kane and turned on Ian, shoving him away. “Get the fuck off me.” He turned back to Kane who was bent over, sucking in air. “And you, get the fuck out of here. Now,” he roared.
Kane scurried out of the room, and then Gage turned his attention back to Ian. “You let every damn person out there know, she’s off limits; none of them can do that shit with her—not even you.”
“Dude, calm down.”
“I’m fucking serious, Ian.”
“I can tell. All right.” He glanced at me with wide eyes as he passed by, exiting the room.
Gage didn’t turn to me at first. He stared at the empty wall where Kane had been. “I could have killed him. I wanted to. If you would have taken that shit, I would have.”
I looked back to his desk, but the lines were gone, a smudge where they use to be.
“Is it you don’t want me trying it with someone else, or you don’t want me doing it at all?” I spoke low, not wanting to reignite his anger but wanting to understand what really sparked it.
His eyes narrowed, brows furrowing, and he stepped closer to me, voice low and serious. “I don’t want you touching that shit at all. I’ve brought you down enough, I’m not going to let you go down that path.”
I didn’t step back like I wanted to. He wasn’t erupting, but this quiet, cool anger simmering in him was intimidating.
“But you do it still? Ian said so, and Kane seemed comfortable to whip it out in your office. How far down that path are you Gage?”
He raised his head, fist curling in his hair as he took a few breaths.
I could see his words building and braced myself for the truth.
“I’ve been trying to stop since last week, when we said we’d do this together.” His eyes dropped from mine as he stepped closer.
“Forget about before.” I remained still, not ready or willing to give comfort yet. “But look at me and tell me, since our talk, how many times?”
“Only once. Thursday when I called you at school, I had just used. I regretted it, that’s why I called.” His voice was speeding up as he stepped closer to me and reached for my hand, trying to convince me. “I’m sorry.”