THE STICK VIBRATED IN MY GRIP. I set it down on the bathroom counter as if it were a bomb that might go off, watching it like it was the most dangerous thing in the world.
And it was.
It had already exploded though, tore through me and destroyed with fire. I was empty and ruined.
Everything was ruined.
I left it there on the bathroom counter and crawled into bed. Pulling the covers over my head, I curled into a ball, seeking any warmth, any comfort. And that’s when the tears started, soaking the sheets under me. There weren’t words or thoughts to explain my sadness, but it was bone deep and consumed everything. It was all there was, a never ending well.
I thought about calling Gage, I wanted to call him. I wanted him here. I wanted his arms to wrap around me and warm me. I was freezing. But I couldn’t speak, and I knew he had to focus on his meeting with Viktor. Plus, I didn’t want to see or hear his reaction. I was a coward that way. I’d leave the stick there for him to find, give him time to process, to react, before we talked about it.
Sobs shook my body until exhaustion settled in and I escaped into sleep.
When I awoke, the grey light of the rainy evening had faded to night, as dark of a night as the city lights allowed it to get.
My first thought was Gage and his meeting, that made my heart jump, but it broke all over again at the next thought. I was pregnant. It was an anchor tethering me down. But I didn’t know what to do. What could I do?
Before I could slip back into my black hole of depression, I picked up my phone, thoughts of Gage coming to the front.
I had missed a text from him. I couldn’t believe I slept through that. Or maybe I had been crying through that.
Meeting went well. Talk later.
The text was sent at 10:30, nearly two hours ago. I had slept into the night, and my stomach grumbled at my lack of food. But that had to wait.
I called Gage. If his meeting was done, I needed him home. We had to talk.
“Hey, how are you feeling?” He sounded excited.
I couldn’t make out the sounds behind him, but they were fading fast and then cut off, like a door closed on them.
“I’m all right,” the response was thoughtless. “Are you at the club?”
“No. No, I’m out, but I’m about to leave and come home. Babe, I have so much to tell you.”
His light voice carved into my heart, I was about to crush his joy when he got home.
“You’re coming home now? How far away are you?”
“I’ll leave now. Are you sure you’re okay? You don’t sound okay, do you need me to pick up medicine or…”
I stopped listening mid way, a voice behind his took all my attention. Cherry was there.
“So, this is where you snuck off to. What you doing back here? Come—”
“I’m on the phone,” Gage snapped at her, and then that background sound of music and voices rose up and shut off again.
“So do you need anything?” He went back to our conversation like nothing had happened.
“You’re not at the club, but she’s there, with you,” I stated the facts, empty.
He paused. “It’s not like that, it’s only business. I’m coming home now and I’ll explain. Don’t get stuck on that.”
“All right.” I hung up. There was nothing to say until he explained. I wasn’t supposed to get stuck on it, but I was. She was with him. I should be the one there with him, not her. I needed his explanation.
Going to the bathroom, I picked up the stick and threw it in the waste bin, no longer concerned with being careful with it. Scooping up the trash bag, I knotted it and took it to the hall disposal, ridding the place of the evidence. I needed to tell him, I knew, but I needed the truth first. I didn’t want to give him an excuse to keep anything from me. My news had to wait.
My stomach was empty, in this strange place where it wanted food, but everything I thought of eating made it turn. I settled on toast and busied myself with that while I waited for Gage, trying and failing to keep out all thoughts.
I didn’t know what to do about my situation. While I waited in the living room, I convinced myself that the test could be wrong—both of them. I still had a doctors appointment on Friday, I’d find out for sure then. For now, I needed to focus on Gage and Cherry. That was the immediate situation.
He walked in like a storm, not pausing at the doorway to take off coat or shoes. His quick pace took no time to find me in the living room, and then he was beside me, pressing me to his wet clothes.
“Ah sorry.” He pulled back, looking at my now damp shirt. “I didn’t mean to get you wet. But, things went so fucking good tonight.”
He stood like he couldn’t stay still. Taking off his jacket, he tossed it to the chair and pulled his boots off after. They hit the ground with a thump, one by one. He ran his hands through his hair, making it stand up.
“Viktor’s all for me starting that club. That’s where I was just now, meeting with potential investors. It’s going forward.” He paused in his pacing, a heart stopping smile on his face.
“That’s good,” I answered, only because it seemed like he was waiting on me to.
He sunk to his knees in front of me and wrapped his arms around my waist. “It’s better than good, it’s fucking fantastic.” He lifted his head, blue eyes electric. “Babe, it’s going to be in my control this time. I get to decide what type of place it is. And with this new direction, I can even get back to boxing. Tonight, I met more than investors, I met managers too. Jonah Silver was there and he had some interesting ideas for my career.” He rose up on his knees so he matched my height sitting on the couch. His hands threaded in my hair, cupping my head. “This is going to be good for us.”
His lips covered mine, and I melted into the warmth of his body. My lips moved with his, wanting to capture his joy, to hold onto it, to wipe out everything else.
His hands moved over me, outlining me to my hips and then dipping under my shirt, heating my skin. His body moved over mine, forcing me back on the couch as his lips travelled down my neck.
My insides twisted as his hands slid over my stomach. I had a secret, but so did he.
“Why was she there? Did she meet Viktor?” I still hadn’t even met him. Gage said I couldn’t. That he would let her, that he’d include her in that, pissed me off the most.
“No.” He hovered over me, arms braced at my sides as he dropped his head, sucking in a breath with a groan. “No one meets Viktor, except a select few.” He raised his head, searching my face. “Viktor had Alessandra set up the meet and greet after our meeting. Ian brought Cherry, they’re going to take over the strip club. I’ve just got to tie up some loose ends, and then I’m done there.”
It sounded good, but for some reason I couldn’t get the idea of Cherry out of my head. How did she get so high, it didn’t make sense? And I hated how her success ate at me. “Why is she taking over if she was only a stripper? I thought she was temporary.”
He lifted off of me and sat at the end of the couch at my feet. I scooted myself up to sitting and hugged my legs; his reaction put me on edge.
“She started as a stripper, yes. But since that incident when she was cut, she stopped.” He leaned his forearms on his knees. “Since then, she’s been learning the club.” He turned his head forward, no longer looking at me. “And more.”
“And more,” I repeated, ice sliding down my spine.
He flashed his eyes to me. “Not what you’re thinking.”
“And what am I thinking?” I wasn’t thinking anything, and his assumption pissed me off. I was trying to be open-minded here.
“You think I’ve done something with her. I never have. I never would.” There was an edge to his voice, growing sharper with every word. “God knows I’ve had the opportunity, but I wouldn’t do that. And I’m tired of you always accusing me of it.”
I was as still as stone. His outburst shocked me more than his words, and the words were bad enough.
“You’ve had the opportunity? And you still keep going around her?”
He leaned back on the sofa with a groan, but I spoke before he could answer, realizing the mistake I was making by letting the conversation go down this path. “Forget that. Why is she taking over? What has she been doing?”
He wiped his hands over his face. “I told you the girls turn to her. She knew about the missing girl.”
I nodded, waiting.
“She helped with that, and she never spoke out about any of it. She let us deal with it our way and kept quiet. She hasn’t met Viktor, but Viktor knows about her. He knows the role she plays at the club, and he rewards hard work and loyalty.”
He stared at me for a moment, hesitation in his eyes. Then he shook his head. “Her and Ian helped me when Viktor gave me that list.” His words were low, almost a whisper, and they crept under my skin, slithering through me.
“How?” I didn’t want to hear anymore, but I needed to.
“Only twice, she lured the men out of the bar to a back alley. I did the rest.”
He had let her in long before he let me in. And she was in, in a way that I never would be.
My feet hit the floor, and I rushed to the bathroom and locked myself in before I could think. I paced, taking breaths.
His knocks echoed through the bathroom. “Regan. Let me in. Talk to me.”
I opened the door, blocking the entrance. “Why did you tell her? Why did you trust her more than me?” The fire burning through me evaporated the tears behind my eyes.
He shook his head, gripping the doorframe at my side. “I didn’t. Ian did. But once she knew, she was game to help, and it worked. But it wasn’t that I trusted her more. Nothing about her is more than you.” He stepped towards me, forcing me to take a step back. “I didn’t include you because I care about you. I don’t give a fuck about her.”
“Ian told her?” I questioned, not wanting to admit how much I liked hearing he didn’t care about her.
The intensity faded from him, and one corner of his mouth turned up. “Yeah. I think they’ve got something going on.”
I wrapped my arms around my waist as relief flooded me, leaving me weak and shaky as the anger receded.
He slipped his arms around me, pulling me close as he bent his knees so he was on my level. “I know you want to be included. But there are some things I won’t ever let you be a part of. And that’s one of them.” He captured my eyes with his. “But I will tell you everything, from now on. I’ll include you in what I can.” He nodded. “Like tonight. Now that I know it was all legit, you can come next time. This Friday, I’m meeting with a few investors and we’re looking at spaces, you should come.”
My mind swirled, I wanted to be a part of this. “All right.”
He lifted me off my feet with his kiss, pulling me down the hall to the bedroom.
Setting me on the bed, he didn’t pull his lips from mine as he undid his pants and kicked them off then stretched out beside me. His hands pushed my hair from my face. “You are my queen, and you’ll be at my side through it all.”
His words tugged at something in me, pulling loose emotions I no longer had a firm hold on. Tears prickled my eyes because I knew it was all going to change. I had wanted to be his partner, and now I couldn’t, not if I had this baby.
Baby. I shouldn’t have thought of it that way.
“Are you all right?” Gage pulled back, eyes scanning over me. “Shit, I forgot you’re not feeling well.” he rolled off of me, but kept his arm around my waist.
I ran my hand over his forearm. “I’m feeling better than earlier, but still a little sick.”
He rested his forehead on the side of my face, breath blowing on my neck. “And here I am pushing myself on you. I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
I bit my lips, to keep in the secret that I wanted to spill. Not yet. I wanted to go to that club one last time, make myself known to Cherry one last time. Maybe show Gage that I could be by his side still. And I didn’t want to ruin his good night. We may have fought, but as he snuggled up next to me, his brow was relaxed and a smile turned up his lips. He wasn’t lined with stress for once. I’d give him this night. Or maybe two.
Before I ruined everything.