THE FRONT DOOR SLID CLOSE, A LIGHT sound but enough to pull me from the surface of sleep. The beeping of the alarm as it was deactivated and then reset let me sink back against the headboard. It was Gage.
The clock on the nightstand table read 12:31. It only felt like minutes, but I had been asleep for hours. His shadow traveled down the dark hallway, growing as he approached the room. His fingers were already at the buttons on his shirt, undoing and removing.
He paused as he crossed into our bedroom, shirt half undone. “You’re awake?” A small smile touched his lips as he changed direction, strolling to our bed instead of the closet.
“I heard you come in.” I sat up, blankets covering my bare legs, a thin tank top doing little to keep away the chill in the room. But he warmed me by running his large hands over my arms when he sat on the edge of the bed.
I shifted closer as he moved towards me, meeting him in a kiss. His lips moved with mine, not demanding anything, but his eyes did as he pulled back. His gaze locked on me, searching as his hand moved to my cheek. “Why haven’t you said anything?”
“About what?” Nerves crept in, but his gentleness kept them down.
“Alessandra told me what she said.”
I stiffened. “That you two slept together?”
He nodded, too calm, too focused on me.
“Why did she tell you that?” The warmth was ripped away, and I pulled back.
“She thought you already did. She thought that’s what I was going to talk to her about, but you hadn’t told me that. Why?”
Bringing my knees up to my chest, I wrapped my arms around them. My own protection against a conversation with the potential to destroy.
“I trust you.” Or at least I was trying to. I was trying to block out the thoughts that went against my instincts. “I don’t want to keep accusing you of things, I’ve done that too much. I have to trust that you would have told me if it were true.”
His eyes dropped from mine, and my heart dropped to my stomach.
“Right?” I wanted to beg for it not to be true. I wasn’t ready to face this. That was the truth as much as I tried to pretend otherwise.
He lifted his head back up. “It was a long time ago.” I covered my mouth as he grabbed my hand on my knee, speaking fast, “Before I met you. I was young and stupid, and it was a mistake.”
The tightness in my chest was pulling, nearly snapping. It should have been a relief, but I couldn’t stand the visions that flashed. I dropped my head to my knees and took in a few breaths.
He slid his other hand around the curve of my shoulder, tentative and slow. “I didn’t tell you before because we never talk about the past, and that’s all that is.”
My head popped up. “No, that’s not all that is. She’s not the past, she’s here now.”
“I’m sorry.” His grip on me tightened. “I didn’t know she’d use it to try and hurt you, or I would have warned you.”
“You should have told me. You shouldn’t have secrets with her.” I slid out of his hold.
He grabbed the covers like pulling on them would keep me close. “I don’t. It really was a one-time thing. A mistake.”
“Tell me. Everything.”
He made a pained sound, face twisting as he looked at me. “Don’t do this. You don’t want the details.”
“I want to know what happened.” I nodded, sure. “Does Rusnak know?”
“Fuck him. I don’t care what he knows,” he snapped, anger raising his voice.
“Well I care, so answer the question.”
“Why?” He narrowed his eyes, voice cold and rigid as he leaned in close to me. “Why do you care about him? Why bring him up?”
“Because you slept with a married woman, and that’s her husband.” Our eyes burned into each other, tension set on fire. I leaned back, rising above the challenge. “And if he didn’t know, I’m sure he will now. She said it in front of those men in her car, they could tell. I can’t imagine him taking it well.”
He shook his head, looking away. “That’s her problem. She shouldn’t have been running her mouth.”
His dismissal took my breath away. I couldn’t decide if he was that ignorant or that cocky. “It’s all of our problem if he chooses to do something about it, to do something to you. We know he’s not above using me and—”
“He won’t do anything, not to me and sure as hell not to you. That won’t happen, I won’t let it.”
I shivered against the chill that ran through me and wrapped my arms around myself. My thoughts weren’t in the moment though; they were stuck in the past.
Gage’s arms circled me, but couldn’t take away the cold.
“Don’t.” I pushed him off. “Not now. Tell me what happened.”
He hesitated, watching me. “Things were different then, Nikolai was in charge, and—my dad and Anatoli were on the same level. I was undefeated in the underground fight club they ran. I think Rusnak suspected, but he couldn’t do anything about it except give me some shit jobs. Besides, he had his other girls distracting him. He’s never been faithful. The only reason they married was because of the connections her family offered. After she had the two kids, he stayed away, practically living with someone else.”
I put my hand up, silencing him. “I don’t care about their marriage right now. I want to hear what happened between you and her.”
“It was stupid.” He rubbed his hand over his hair, shutting his eyes with a groan. “She had been coming to the fights, always around even when Anatoli wasn’t—he rarely was. She was always telling me different ways she could help me, different opportunities she could give me. Nick warned me to stay the hell away, that she was crazy. And I tried to. I ignored her mostly, but after one fight she was waiting for me in my room, naked.” He shrugged, glancing at me and then looking back at his hands. “Fuck, I was nineteen, charged from my win, and she was willing and ready. I knew I shouldn’t, but I didn’t care. I told Aaron, my father, and he told me to keep my mouth shut and not let it happen again. He must’ve warned her too because she stopped showing up after that.”
“How old was she?”
He shrugged, “Late twenties, I think.”
“And since then, now that she’s back around, has there been anything else? Has she tried?”
He looked up at me, eyes shadowed, and nodded.
I curled deeper into myself, arms gripping tighter around my waist and stomach knotted with pain.
“She’s tried, but I made it clear that you were it for me.” He ran his hand along the covers between us, tips of his fingers grazing my leg. “You are it for me. There will never be anyone else, you can trust that.”
I held still as his light touch charged my skin, making my heart race. But I needed him to continue his story. “When?”
His hand froze. “Last month, one night when I slept at the club. She had come in at closing and wasn’t leaving. She suggested she would stay with me or I could go with her.” His eyes lifted to mine, capturing all my attention. “I kicked her out. Nothing happened.”
My stomach churned with too much information and warring emotions.
“There was only one other time.” His voice was quiet and the warning in it made me sick. “When I was in Florida, when you were…when they took you.”
I closed my eyes against the avalanche of fear those few words caused. I couldn’t think of that time without being buried by it, trapped in it.
“I had to go through with the shipment, and we used her family’s boats. Once it came through and they told me where I could find you, I was going to leave. But Anatoli wanted me to stay and deliver it to Baltimore. She tried to stop me. She threw herself at me, and when that didn’t work, she tried to trap me there. I snapped and pulled a gun on her to get her out of my way. Crazy thing is I think Anatoli told her to do that.”
“Why would he do that?”
“His priority is business. He has no real care for anyone in his life. If he thought she could get me to stay, he’d use it to his advantage. That’s why I don’t think we have to worry about this. He’ll need me when, or if, he gets out” His voice was level, but his jaw clenched and fist’s curled. His eyes cast to the floor, seeing something else. “And he’s already gotten even for it.”
“Oh.” His words slammed into my thoughts, my time with Rusnak suddenly taking on new meaning.
He turned to look at me, anger melting from his features. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go there, to bring that up.” One large hand gripped my leg from above the covers, and when I stayed still, he released his breath. “I should have told you. I’m sorry I didn’t. It’s not that I was keeping it from you, I would have told you if we ever brought up the past, but I know you don’t like to talk about any of that.” He grabbed my hand. “Babe, look at me. I love you. I will tell you anything you want to know. Please, do you still trust me? Where is your head at with this?”
I chewed on my lip and met his begging gaze. He looked so honest, like safety I could take shelter in. And I needed shelter, shadows hid in my thoughts.
“I hate it.” I closed my eyes against the stinging visions of them together, like broken glass around my heart. “I hate that she knows that part of you, that you’ve touched her. I hate that she was the one to tell me.” I took a deep breath, opening my eyes to look at him. “But I have no right to be so angry. It happened before me. Since we’ve met, I’ve done worse to you.” I placed my hand over his. “But you forgave me.” I ran my fingers over his and then laced our hand together. “And you’re right, I never wanted to talk about the past, but…I think we need to start.”
He nodded and slid beside me on the bed so his back was to the headboard, his fingers still wrapped with mine. “I’ll tell you anything.”
I was numb, but I wanted to keep him talking, let his voice reassure me until I felt okay, even for a moment. “What was it like growing up in this, with your Dad?”
Gage’s eyes dropped to where my hand was pressed against my stomach. “It wasn’t bad, but it won’t be the same for our baby. This may be the life I lead, but he won’t. He’ll go to college and do something else.”
I wanted to believe but didn’t, and he must have seen the doubt.
“Viktor and Anatoli both have kids. They go to prestigious boarding schools, and Viktor’s daughter is at some college in England. It can be done.”
My smile flickered, but I couldn’t maintain it. “I don’t want to send her or him away to boarding school.”
“Me neither.” He put his free hand over mine on my stomach. “But we’ll send him to a good private school here in the city.”
In the city. Thinking of this baby’s future made me sad, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to be hopeful, like Gage, but didn’t know how. He had grown up in this though, maybe he knew better than me. I wanted to believe that.
My eyes traveled from his hand, still pressed to my stomach, up his bare arm to the dark ink swirling over his skin. The entire top half of his arm was covered in a storm, small tattoo’s blended in with storm clouds, and the lightning bolts were the only bare skin seen. The details were beautiful. Moving my hand from under his, I traced his fathers name within one dark cloud.
“You loved your father? Even though he got you in all this? Started all of this?”
“Yes,” he answered quick, and his hand fell away from my stomach, grabbing the tattoo I was just tracing. “He did the best he could. He got me involved but…” He shook his head. “He also saved me. If I didn’t get in with them, I would have turned to some others on the street. I would have done whatever needed to be done to get away from my mom, and I had to get Dexter out too.”
“When he was alive, it was family—Him and Nick and Silas. But when he died, it all fell apart. Nikolai went to prison and everything changed.” He looked down, shaking off the sadness pulling on him. “If I blame anyone, it would be my mom. But I don’t, not really.”
“Your mom might know who my father is.” My own voice surprised me; I hadn’t planned on saying that.
Gage pulled me to look at him with hands on my hips. “What? When did she say that?”
I couldn’t meet his eyes. “When I was in Vegas. She said she knew my—Angela. She worked with her, and before Angela was with Nikolai, she had some guy Jared around. But when she realized I didn’t know any of this, she stopped talking and said she didn’t know anything.” I could feel the intensity of his gaze but couldn’t bring myself to look at him. “It’s stupid, it’s not like he was there for me. He hasn’t contacted me. He doesn’t care. I don’t need to know who he is.”
Gage gripped my chin with his fingers, lifting it so I met his eyes. “But you want to know? It’s okay to want to know.”
Looking at him, I couldn’t lie, and he pulled a truth I hadn’t even admitted to myself. “I want to know who he is, if he is.”
His lips pressed to mine for a second before he pulled back. “Then you will. I’ll help.”